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WHO STARTING GLOBAL SYSTEM TO CATCH OUTBREAKS

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Chimpanzees in the Ivory Coast get the deadly Ebola virus every other autumn, but doctors have never had the money to study them for clues about the baffling disease that kills people quickly and horribly.

Now the United Nations' World Health Organization is starting the first global system to contain emerging diseases like Ebola fast when they infect people, and eventually to prevent them through such research as a now-pending study of those chimps."This is a new way of acting for WHO," said Dr. David Heymann, who describes the emerging disease division he started Oct. 1 as the agency's "first kind of SWAT team effort."

It's a poorly funded team, he admits. Heymann has a two-year budget of just $1.5 million to send in doctors within 24 hours when a new disease strikes anywhere in the world, and to raise research dollars.

Take Ebola, a usually fatal virus that lurks in some unknown animal species, attacking people every dozen years or so. It killed 245 in Zaire last summer. U.S. and European experts had to await visas to enter Zaire before they could treat the victims and contain Ebola's spread.

Heymann's program holds U.N. passes to enter at will, something he predicts will cut by a week the time it will take to contain the next emerging disease outbreak.

He also persuaded the French government to donate a scientist to study those Ivory Coast chimps, the only species other than humans in which Ebola has ever been found. Ebola outbreaks killed chimps in the falls of 1992 and 1994, also infecting a primate handler - meaning those chimps are in regular contact with whatever animal harbors and spreads the virus.

There is no way to predict when these emerging diseases - new infections from animals or germ mutations or old ones like tuberculosis that develop resistance to antibiotics - are about to strike.

Last year, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention took the first steps toward developing an early warning system in this country, funding surveillance programs in four states. Eventually, the $75 million plan is to act as a global sentinel, but the CDC so far has been given $7.7 million to begin phasing it in here.

The WHO, long criticized for not acting against these threats, will help begin to fill the gap, said CDC infectious disease expert Dr. Ruth Berkelman.

"The WHO has a long way to go," she said. "But they are going to help focus the problem . . . and we hope attract private partners" for funding.

The effort comes as U.S. officials reported troubling trends this week:

-New CDC analyses indicate deaths from infectious diseases rose 56 percent between 1980 and 1992. Respiratory illnesses, the AIDS virus and blood infections were the major causes.

-Illnesses appear on the rise too, with doctor visits for ear infections increasing 150 percent between 1975 and 1990.

-The food-borne pathogen salmonella struck four of every 100,000 people in 1960 but almost 20 per 100,000 in 1990. In the past year, salmonella in one ice cream brand spread to 40 states because doctors didn't catch the outbreak, Berkelman said.