PR No.153 Comsats Talk Highlights Need For Bio Surveillance Islamabad: April 19, 2016

The world needs bio surveillance more than ever before in the face of new and emerging challenges in the form of epidemics, pandemics, bioterrorism and biowarfares, which may not only pose threat to health and economy of a country but also its national security. This was highlighted in an expert talk given by Dr. Habib Bokhari, Professor of Microbiology and Immunology at the Department of Biosciences, COMSATS Institute of Information Technology (CIIT), Islamabad. The lecture was held on 19th April at COMSATS Secretariat under the organization’s Science Diplomacy initiative launched last year for better awareness, advocacy and diplomacy of issues pertaining to S&T led development. A number of higher education institutions were represented at the event, including COMSATS Institute of Information Technology (CIIT); Atta-ur-Rahman School of Applied Biosciences (ASAB), NUST; Islamic International Medical College (IIMC), Riphah University; Shaheed Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto Medical University; Abasyn University; as well as National Veterinary Laboratory, Islamabad; Pakistan Institute of Medical Sciences (PIMS); COMSATS Secretariat.

The Executive Director COMSATS in his welcome remarks noted that biosurveillance is need of the day. He introduced COMSATS Science Diplomacy programme and emphasized that the Lecture Series under this initiative would be an ongoing activity to create mass awareness among public and policy-makers, and that the lectures by COMSATS Science Ambassadors and experts would be held from time to time on issues of national and regional importance.

In his talk, Dr. Bokhari made an interesting presentation that covered origin of genomes; timeline of basic science in relation to infectious diseases; risks due to biological agents; emerging epidemics & pandemics; classification of bioterrorism agents/diseases and biological weaponry. The hazards caused by microbial agents were classified as: Natural outbreaks, accidental release, bio-crime, bioterrorism, and bio-warfare, as well as related challenges and opportunities. It was noted that a number of pathogens have successfully crossed species barriers, which has put humans at greater risks.

It was shown that pandemics and epidemics take a huge economic toll on countries, a number of examples shared of such losses included that of SARS with economic tolls of US$ 40-50 billion worldwide; foot-and-mouth disease (in UK), US$ 18-25 billion; Avian Flu US$ 25-30 billion. Anthrax, E.coli, Hepatitis C, Dengue, Yellow Fever, Cholera, Nipah virus, SARS, H5N1, and multi-drug resistant tuberculosis were quoted as a few global examples of emerging & re-emerging infectious diseases. The factors at play behind pandemics and epidemics were noted to include: rapid mobility due to globalization; change in eco-systems and climate; demographics; change in human susceptibility; redundant practices in public health measures; poverty and social inequality; war and famine; lack of political will; as well as malicious intents to harm individuals/societies. He noted that due to low cost of production involved, bio-weapons/bio-terrorism will be one of the major threats of the 21st century. He therefore considered it important to cater to relevant scientific needs for Microbial Forensics. The aim should be to prevent and reduce the likelihood of outbreaks — natural, accidental, or intentional; detect threats early to save lives; and respond rapidly and effectively using multi-sectorial, international coordination and communication.

In the context of Pakistan, Dr. Bokhari noted that Pakistan has one of the worst infant mortality rates, a very high under 5 mortality rate; 2nd highest hepatitis prevalence; and 6th highest TB prevalence. There are 100 million hospitalizations and more than 50,000 deaths per year due to naturally occurring food-borne illness in the country. Taking stock of the country’s poor preparedness to issues related to pandemics, epidemics and bioterrorism, he emphasized the need for creating public awareness, generating relevant data, supporting R&D programmes, mobilizing knowledge networks and establishing regulatory bodies with clear policy guidelines.