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Emerging infections, global microbial threats

West Nile, AIDS, SARS, Lyme Disease, bird flu. Modern-day diseases which spread rapidly around the world make global health experts nervous.   NBC's Robert Bazell reports on why they're so dangerous.

Bruce England, an EMS technician in Toronto, almost died last year from a disease that had first appeared half a world away, in China.

“I just couldn’t see myself coming down with SARS. It was a disease with no known cure; no known treatment, and people were dying everyday from it,” England said.

SARS, back now with a few cases in China, is what scientists call an emerging infection.  One of the newest of which is the “bird flu,” in Asia, which has killed millions of chickens as well as five people, and threatens to become a global epidemic.

“The last year has been a very active year in terms of emerging infections and global microbial threats,” according to Dr. James Hughes, head of infectious diseases at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  He says new diseases usually emerge when germs from animals jump species and infect humans.

The problem is often man-made by practices such as destruction of rain forests or raising more and more animals in close quarters.

Does he see this as a situation that is going to get continually worse?

“I think we’re receiving repeated wake-up calls from Mother Nature in terms of the threat that infectious agents are continuing to pose,” Dr. Hughes said.

The best protection, according to health officials, is constant surveillance for new disease organisms.  It’s a task that can be difficult and, as scientists at the CDC know, dangerous.

When a new organism appears that is highly contagious — or until researchers understand just how dangerous it is - it must be studied in the so-called “P-4” or maximum containment laboratory at the CDC.

Other recent emerging infections include West Nile fever from mosquitoes, Lyme disease from ticks, mad cow and the worst ever - AIDS, which was once a handful of cases in 1981 and noe afflicts 60 million people worldwide.

England survived his SARS infection and quick action by world health authorities stemmed last year's outbreak, but officials know they must always prepare for new, deadly threats.