Is Asia-Pacific ready for Ebola?

World Health Organization Regional Director Shin Young-soo. Asia-Pacific may be better prepared to combat Ebola should the disease spread in the region. Photo by: WHO

With cases of Ebola already reported in the United States and in Europe, adding to the over 4,000 confirmed dead and more than 8,000 infected in West Africa as of mid-October, many wondered whether Asia-Pacific would be ready to combat the deadly virus if it spread there soon.

In terms of preparation and treatment, Asia-Pacific has a historical “competitive advantage” over others, according to World Health Organization Regional Director Shin Young-soo.

“We have our own structure, most of our countries that are sufficient enough to have strong resistance to these kinds of outbreaks,” Shin said during a WHO press conference in Manila attended by Devex Oct. 10. “On top of that, we have experience in SARS ... we learned from that experience. We are in a much better shape than other regions.”

Asia-Pacific has endured global pandemics very recently, namely SARS, which killed over 700 people especially in southern China in 2002 and 2003, and the swine flu virus that claimed about 17,000 lives in 2010.

While the region continues to struggle on some development targets like hygiene, sanitation and health coverage, Shin said infrastructures and services are still far better than in West Africa.

“When we are talking about West Africa, it also has to be taken in mind their hygiene, health care system and infrastructure. We already know what type of [development] issues they have,” the WHO official said referring to the collapse of the public healths sector in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.

Framework for action

Shin said that WHO is currently working with several member governments in the region to improve facilities and health infrastructure to better prepare and equip the countries against the disease.

“We are aware that we have enough experts and facilities. We are continuously developing each member state’s [health] infrastructure to be prepared,” he said. “We have good networks of facilities in the region as well as people and experts and all are working very hard in preparation.”

WHO has a framework for action to better prepare the region for Ebola, now officially considered by the U.N. agency a humanitarian crisis and not just a public health emergency. Below are six components of action that countries can follow:

1. Command and coordination. Employing a review and enhancement of national public health emergency preparedness and response plans including command and coordination structures.

2. Surveillance, risk assessment and response. Implementation of a public health surveillance system to detect and report probable Ebola cases including a risk assessment procedure and treatment process.

3. Laboratory. Improvement or institution of enough facilities and health professionals to conduct and assess in-country testing for rapid results and response.

4. Clinical management, and infection prevention and control. Increased knowledge and capacity of health professionals and other concerned stakeholders on WHO guidelines regarding infection prevention and control to avoid widespread transmission.

5. Public health intervention. Travel advisories including information sharing, diagnosis, containment and treatment should be available in countries with trained health professionals on call, in addition to having a public health emergency contingency plan in every country’s point of entry.

6. Risk communication. Better information dissemination and more effective communication tools to “harness public trust” and educate civilians on emergency situations.

In terms of a concrete medical solution in the form of drugs or vaccines, Li Ailan, WHO Western Pacific’s health security and emergencies director, revealed that there are currently two candidate vaccines in the pipeline. Both are entering the human trial phase and should be in circulation in January 2015, although she clarified that the extent of the its circulation may be limited.

“There is a prioritization issue that's why WHO conducted several studies and we want to prioritize health workers [in Ebola-hit nations],” she concluded. “But, for now, we see that it will be difficult to have [these vaccines] for public use very soon. But we are working with member states on how we can make it available in the long term.”

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About the author

  • Lean 2

    Lean Alfred Santos

    Lean Alfred Santos is a former Devex development reporter focusing on the development community in Asia-Pacific, including major players such as the Asian Development Bank and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. He previously covered Philippine and international business and economic news, sports and politics.