Indo-Pacific health security threat data gathered in DFAT report

A medical personnel analyzes a blood sample in the pathology laboratory at the Kilu'ufi hospital in Solomon Islands. Photo by: Rob Maccoll / DFAT / CC BY

CANBERRA — In planning and responding to issues of health security, access to information on the health landscape — including health risks and ability to respond — is important. But in planning the priorities of the Indo-Pacific Centre for Health Security, the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade found the information wasn’t easily accessible.

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“The global health community is very siloed,” Dr. Stephanie Williams, a principal health specialist at DFAT, explained to Devex. “We like our specific diseases and action plans. DFAT ... was trying to pull together these high-burden and high-risk pathogens as well as the diseases that affect people every day. Even putting together this information in a combined regional report I believe is a first.”

An investment of more than $250,000 Australian dollars ($175,000) to bring together the risks and capacities of countries in the region helped produce “The State of Health Security in the Indo-Pacific Region” report.

The identification of high-risk diseases in the region were not a surprise. The list of health challenges in the region include chikungunya, the Nipah virus, SARS, avian flu, and Zika.

But the information on these infectious diseases with epidemic potential for the region is just part of the story. The report — more than 100 pages in length — provides an in-depth analysis of health security risk, including drivers of disease emergence and recommendations for improvement.

For example, the increasing incidence of dengue fever is posing a challenge for the region, with a 21% uptick in reports between 2013-2017. And measles is also on the rise, increasing in Southeast Asia has increased by nearly 20% in the past five years due to poor vaccine rates.

Endemic zoonotic diseases were also identified as a priority risk for the region, including rabies, anthrax, avian influenza, and bovine tuberculosis.

To identify and address the challenges of responding to epidemics, assessments of health security capacities were carried out using World Health Organization and World Organisation for Animal Health evaluation tools and frameworks. Results indicated “a substantial need to strengthen countries’ capacity to prevent, detect and respond to health security threats,” according to the report.

Findings from the report were brought together through the Australian aid lens, to incorporate themes of gender, disability, and climate change. According to DFAT, the report will help shape its investment and engagement in the region.

Shaping regional thinking on health

Williams explained to Devex that the report was a desk and research-based investigation but was critical in bringing together health knowledge in a single resource — and by combining risk metrics in one place, she said that the health needs can be elevated in planning, including for the Indo-Pacific Centre for Health Security.

“The center will be working to build country capacity over the next couple of months as a direct response to the information and consultation,” she said. “So it is principally a resource of regional knowledge and an explicit recognition of issues that will help guide our country work.”

Using available data to assess high and low needs or threats, Williams said, has been a helpful activity for DFAT and the center, but it will not be the sole basis for decision-making and planning.

“It is important to work with countries to prioritize needs — and this report informs both us and the health security community, but we are first and foremost listening to countries in our region for what is most important to them in health security.”

Implementing the report

Williams explained that the center has had two years of thinking about how they can make a difference in health security, as well as how core bilateral health assistance programs can impact the Indo-Pacific. The report will help the Australian aid program focus its attention on core issues — including for Williams.

“It’s incumbent on us to use the information we commission, and refer to it,” she said.

To work within the broader Australian aid objectives, DFAT will be looking at cross-cutting themes of the aid program to measure impact. Where there are gaps in data and knowledge — including on gender and disability for health priorities — Williams said it can start the demand for more information that will support monitoring as well as more effective programming.

Beyond DFAT’s needs, Williams said the report has wider objectives to support development knowledge of the Indo-Pacific.

“It’s a new look in putting together information on health security in this integrated way,” she said. “It is a timely and evidence-based assessment of both high-risk pathogens, burdens of diseases and country capacity to move on in our region — and it highlights important areas of gender, disability, and climate change.”

About the author

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    Lisa Cornish

    Lisa Cornish is a Devex Reporter based in Canberra, where she focuses on the Australian aid community. Lisa formerly worked with News Corp Australia as a data journalist for the national network and was published throughout Australia in major metropolitan and regional newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph in Melbourne, Herald Sun in Melbourne, Courier-Mail in Brisbane, and online through news.com.au. Lisa additionally consults with Australian government providing data analytics, reporting and visualization services. Lisa was awarded the 2014 Journalist of the Year by the New South Wales Institute of Surveyors.