GENEVA - Although earthquakes and floods usually receive the most prominent news coverage, infectious diseases are claiming far more lives than natural disasters, according to a report issued yesterday by the Red Cross.
The death toll from infectious diseases such as AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria is 160 times greater than the number of people killed in last year's major earthquakes in Turkey, cyclones in India and floods in Venezuela, said the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.
An estimated 150 million people have died from those three diseases since 1945, compared with 23 million in wars during the same period, according to the federation's World Disasters Report.
The findings have caused the federation to re-examine its work, according to the report's author, Peter Walker, head of disaster policy.
"Everywhere we do disaster relief, we found the disaster was built on the shaky bedrock of poor public health," he said.
"While we will still respond to disasters, we've got to reinvigorate the second string in our bow - long-term assistance."
The Red Cross said such aid is needed to combat increasing health risks that result from climate change, growing urbanization and environmental damage.
Governments are lagging behind on preventive health care, it said.
"There has been a real change in the last 10 years. In almost every country, there is a facade of a health system, but away from the city centers, there is nothing," Walker said.
The report said this problem enables diseases that were once under control to re-emerge - as malaria has in Azerbaijan and Tajikistan.
Last year, 13 million people died from such infectious diseases, which the report said could have been prevented by spending as little as $5 per person in health care.
According to the report, public spending on health in poorer countries averages 1 percent of gross domestic product, compared with the 6 percent that wealthier countries spend.
The report's authors said money spent on changing people's behavior to prevent disease saves more lives than money for expensive facilities such as hospitals and high-tech equipment.