New initiatives put regional health security at the forefront of Australian aid priorities

Greg Hunt, Australian minister for health (left) and Dr. Shin Young-soo, World Health Organization Regional Director for the Western Pacific (right) at the 68th Session of the WHO Regional Committee for the Western Pacific held in Brisbane, Australia. Photo by: WHO

BRISBANE, Australia — It has been 20 years since Australia last hosted the World Health Organization Regional Committee for the Western Pacific. This year, as host of the 68th session in Brisbane from October 9 to 13, Australia marked the occasion with major announcements committing the government to support detection, preparation, and response on issues impacting the health security of the region.

The launch of a 300 million Australian dollar ($233 million) Indo-Pacific Health Security Initiative by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and Australia’s Therapeutic Goods Administration — part of the Australian Government Department of Health — was the big ticket item targeting existing and emerging infectious diseases in Australia and surrounding countries, with the initial focus on drug-resistant tuberculosis and malaria in the Indo-Pacific region.

Led by the Indo-Pacific Centre for Health Security, a new unit within DFAT, initial investments include 75 million Australian dollars ($58 million) in grant funding for Product Development Partnerships, 20 million Australian dollars ($16 million) for WHO’s health emergencies programs, and a new Health Security Corps to encourage Australian health professionals to share expert knowledge with other health professionals in the region.

Australia’s commitment to the health of the region was additionally demonstrated through its signing of a Country Cooperation Strategy with WHO, making it the first developed country from the Western Pacific region to establish such a strategy. The agreement focuses on four key areas — regional health security, providing universal access to medical staff for countries in the region, improving broad health regulatory arrangements, and assisting WHO to achieve organizational excellence in supporting member countries and their health needs.

What is the benefit for Australia?

The new health announcements came as Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs Penny Wong criticized the Australian aid program’s cut of funding to health programs. Some 11.3 billion Australian dollars ($8.8 billion) have been cut since 2011, according to Wong.

The new funding announcement is a “significant investment” that has clear goals for Australia’s security, Australian Minister for Health Greg Hunt told reporters on Monday. “It’s in our national interests because if we have stronger and better health outcomes in our region, we ensure we have better health security for Australia,” he said.

But the partnership with WHO enables a smart investment.

In cooperation with WHO, Hunt explained that Australia can better identify risks and trends for emerging chronic diseases. They can learn from regional experience of WHO. And through WHO, information can be channeled to discover what is and isn’t working in countries’ policies targeting health issues.

They can better target needs and support for regional health, and prioritize emerging health issues that impact regional security.

What is the benefit for WHO?

The signing of the Country Cooperation Strategy with Australia is expected to be just the first in a number of agreements with developed nations in the Western Pacific region, with Japan among those currently in discussion.

Dr. Shin Young-soo, WHO regional director for the Western Pacific, explained there are important benefits in improving response capabilities within the region — which includes geographic diversity from Mongolia to New Zealand and economic diversity from China to Niue.

“Disease does not respect borders,” he explained to press. “If anything happens, we have to all work together.”

Shin said that Australia’s technical expertise and professional public health sector were an important asset in responding to health issues including pandemics, but the ability for WHO to help Australia best target their investment in the Indo-Pacific Health Security Initiative was also an advantage to them. “We are helping and supporting them to make this effective,” he said, saying Australia and WHO working together will improve global health generally.

New funding opportunities through the aid program

Australia’s health announcements have additionally opened the door to new funding opportunities for the development sector.

Launched with the Indo-Pacific Health Security Initiative, DFAT established two new grant funds: the Product Development Partnerships Competitive Grants Fund and the Stronger Systems for Health Security initiative.

The Product Development Partnerships Competitive Grants Fund seeks proposals for initiatives that will halt the spread of drug-resistant strains of TB and malaria in the Indo-Pacific region. Applications are open until December 15 to nonprofit organizations using public and philanthropic funds to engage the pharmaceutical industry or academic institutions in research and development to combat diseases in the developing world that are unlikely to be pursued without external incentives. A total of 75 million Australian dollars ($58 million) in grants are to be invested over five years, with the expectation that up to four initiatives will be funded for 10 to 20 million Australian dollars ($8 to $16 million) each.

The 16 million Australian dollars ($12 million) Stronger Systems for Health Security initiative will allocate grants at a maximum of 3 million Australian dollars ($2 million) over three years. It will support high-quality and collaborative health systems or policy research that improves evidence-based decision-making to strengthen regional health security — with a geographic focus on Southeast Asia and the Pacific.

Beyond the financial incentives, the grants also aim to grow the experience of Australian researchers in issues of regional health security, in order to improve knowledge and the ability to respond in the future.

They are initiatives WHO and Australia consider a win-win — and what is hoped to be the first of more investment in health security from donor countries in the region.

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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.