Global tracking scheme wanted for killer bugs: Better surveillance needed to halt spread of lethal infections

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The Independent Online
NEW CASES of lethal infections, such as the 'flesh-eating' microbial disease, should be tracked by a global network of surveillance centres, the World Health Organisation said yesterday, as doctors dismissed claims of a second cluster in Hampshire.

Dr James Le Duc, of the WHO's Division of Communicable Diseases in Geneva, said that better surveillance would allow scientists to identify problem microbes sooner and prevent their spread. WHO is concerned about the re-emerging threat of infectious diseases and their spread through travel, antibiotic resistance and the international exchange of foodstuffs and live animals.

The British cases of streptococcal A infection, which cause a rapid gangrene-like illness, were a 'dramatic example of an emerging or re- emerging infection for which you need to have background information to decide what is normal and what is abnormal', Dr Le Duc said.

Government scientists insist that the number of cases so far this year is within expected levels. However, privately, some admit they have no idea of the true level because they rely on voluntary reporting to the Public Health Laboratory Service.

Last night, the laboratory confirmed a total of 15 cases of strep A-related necrotising fasciitis since January - including four from the Gloucester area. Dr Diana Walford, director of the PHLS, said: 'Publicity has resulted in our national centre being informed of cases that would not have been reported previously. It would be incorrect, therefore, to compare these numbers with reported figures from earlier years.'

Virginia Bottomley, Secretary of State for Health, said: 'It is important not to jump to conclusions before the microbiology and the studies have been completed.' Strep A infection would not be made a notifiable disease.

Mrs Bottomley's comments followed reports that a second cluster of cases had emerged in Hampshire, where two people died within hours of being taken to the Royal Hampshire County Hospital at Winchester, one of whom had necrotising fasciitis. Three others developed blood poisoning and survived.

Dr Matthew Dryden, a consultant microbiologist, said that the cases were not a cluster, but separated in space and time, and within expected limits for the area.

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