Embargo: 00:01 Monday 21 July 2008
Contact: Owen Williams 020 7219 8659


An influential Lords Committee have today reported that a new and potentially deadly infectious disease emerges somewhere in the world every year and it is vital that there is more investment in international surveillance if pandemics are to be avoided.

The House's Intergovernmental Organisations (IGOs) Committee report Diseases Know No Frontiers follows a six-month inquiry into the effectiveness of intergovernmental efforts to control the global spread of infectious diseases.

The Committee draws a distinction between large-scale infections, such as HIV, malaria and tuberculosis, which are already prevalent in many part of the world and which are being addressed by a wide range of initiatives; and infections, such as SARS and avian influenza, which are not with us at the moment but which, if and when they appear, could have devastating consequences across the globe.

It is particularly in regard to these highly communicable infections that international disease surveillance systems need to be improved. Outbreaks need to be detected and accurately diagnosed when and where they occur if they are not to spread rapidly both within and beyond their countries of origin. The Committee recommend that the Government should urgently consider how greater priority can be given to bringing infectious disease surveillance and response systems in developing nations to an appropriate level, both in its own bilateral funding and in resources provided by intergovernmental organisations of which the UK is a member.

The report quotes the Government's view that the landscape of international activity in disease control is "crowded and poorly coordinated", with large numbers of governmental, inter-governmental and non-governmental bodies operating, often in parallel, with duplication of effort and sometimes with unacceptable management burdens on recipient countries. The Committee accepts that it is unrealistic to think in terms of imposing a rationalised structure from above but believes that the many actors in the field of international disease control need to move towards greater cooperation and that the necessary leadership for such a move should come from the World Health Organisation (WHO). The WHO, says the Committee, needs to be better organised and resourced to do this.

The Committee also call for a shift in international health spending between resources for treating specific diseases and investment in improving underlying health services. The Committee argue that some international funding should move from vertical disease control, where efforts are targeted at a particular disease, to horizontal efforts, which encourage more investment in health services in developing countries. They point out that, while vertical disease control may have an immediate short term impact, it is likely to prove unsustainable without parallel investment in health care systems generally.

One issue which has attracted the Committee's particular attention is the way in which human and animal diseases are handled. Three quarters of newly emerging human infections come from animals but there are separate and less comprehensive international arrangements for detecting animal diseases. Very often these are only identified after they have jumped the species barrier to infect humans. The Committee urges the Government to press for more coordinated surveillance in this area.

Commenting Lord Soley, Chairman of the International Organisations Committee, said:

"The last hundred years have seen great advances in public health and disease control through the world, but globalisation and changes in lifestyles are giving rise to new infections and providing opportunities for them to spread rapidly throughout the world.

"We have been impressed by the increased international resources and commitment which are now being devoted to controlling infectious diseases, and we hope this will continue and grow. However, for that to be effective it is vital that there is sufficient surveillance of disease outbreaks to limit their spread.

"We were particularly concerned about the link with animal health. Three quarters of new human infectious start in animals. We urgently need better surveillance systems to deal with this problem.

"We also felt their should be more focus on improving health services in the developing world generally, as without improved health facilities it will be far more difficult for current treatment campaigns to take root and for serious infectious disease outbreaks to be identified and dealt with when they occur."

Notes to Editors

  1. The House of Lords Select Committee on Intergovernmental Organisations was established in November 2007 to inquire into how issues of international policy are handled through IGOs and how the Government is making use of its membership of them to improve their effectiveness.
  2. Their first report Diseases Know No Frontiers: How Effective are Intergovernmental Organisations in controlling their spread?, is available from The Stationery Office, HL Paper 143.
  3. The report will be available online shortly after publication at:
  4. The members of the House of Lords Select Committee on Intergovernmental Organisations are:

Lord Soley (Chairman)

Lord Hannay of Chiswick

Lord Avebury

Baroness Hooper

Lord Desai

Lord Howarth of Newport

Baroness Eccles of Moulton

Lord Jay of Ewelme

Baroness Falkner of Margravine

Lord Steinberg

Lord Geddes

Baroness Whitaker

For copies of the report or to request an interview with Lord Soley, please contact Owen Williams, Head of Press and Media, House of Lords, on 020 7219 8659. The Chairman, Lord Soley, may be contacted direct on 07785 250 456