Why a 'no regrets policy' on disease outbreaks is a must for Asia-Pacific

Health workers checking airplane passengers for swine flu, the H1N1 strain. The Asia-Pacific region is among the most vulnerable not just to natural disasters, but also to disease outbreaks. Photo by: leniners / CC BY-NC

The Asia-Pacific region is among the most vulnerable to natural disasters, such as typhoons, floods and earthquakes. But the recent focus on the region’s sensitivity to such events has eclipsed another vulnerability that may also pose a significant threat to Asia-Pacific’s development: disease outbreaks and pandemics.

The region has seen several infectious disease pandemics through the years. The severe acute respiratory syndrome that broke out in late 2002 resulted in more than 700 deaths in Hong Kong and neighboring areas. Just recently, South Korea was hit with a Middle East respiratory syndrome outbreak, which resulted in nearly 40 deaths. Other infectious diseases that were believed to have started in the region include bird flu and swine flu.

The recent Ebola outbreak in West Africa has shown how quickly infectious diseases can spread if countries have weak health systems and are not prepared to handle a widespread pandemic. How then should the region prepare for such an outbreak?

“Precautionary quarantines, exit screenings, entry schemes and planning for evacuation of large populations may be necessary, [but] they may also not turn out to be necessary leading us to the recognition that we must have a no regrets policy,” Michael Compton, assistant to the commander of the Hawaii-based U.S. Pacific Air Forces, shared Thursday in a workshop in Manila attended by Devex. “The fault of not acting will be much worse than acting and not needing to act.”

There has to be a concerted effort, not just from countries in the region but globally, to act quickly to prevent — rather than just react to — biological events, Compton said. Like climate change, disease outbreaks know no borders. Further, “stability and security in the Asia-Pacific region is in the entire world’s interest.”

“Another biological event is inevitable, as evidenced by the fact that they occur periodically,” the military officer said. “This reminds us of much larger outbreaks … that give us warning that we all need to work now closely as we prepare, prevent and respond to these outbreaks.”

There is consensus among nations that many of the current outbreak prevention plans and exercises “have failed adequately to anticipate the scope of these events,” he said. Biohazard preparation should be integrated in the global development agenda and not just a footnote in natural disaster response or poverty reduction plans.

Greater connectivity increases vulnerability

Globalization has made it easier for countries to communicate, cooperate and do business with each other. But this increased connectivity has also made countries more vulnerable to outbreaks.

Vito Roque, officer-in-charge of the epidemiology bureau at the Philippine health department, said that not only are there more diseases that have emerged in the past couple of decades, but that the potential of a massive outbreak is bigger as well.

For instance, there are about 42,000 domestic and international airports in the world, with about 3 billion passengers transiting through them each year. Countries need to have the necessary infrastructure and build their capacity to prevent these transiting passengers to spread infectious diseases. The Ebola outbreak shows the impact of global health pandemics is far-reaching and can hurt a country’s economic and social progress.

“We must continue to stress and push ourselves to look at this not just from a national, regional or global implication of these types of events,” Compton said. “We know that a new infectious disease or a biological event is not just a question of if but only a question of when.”

Some of the best practices that were shared in the three-day workshop include drafting an initial three-point scheme focused on preparedness, response and communication. Under these thematic areas, there should be a focus on infrastructure proliferation, early detection, capacity building and logistics, including medicine and other paraphernalia, as well as a coordinated system to disseminate accurate information to the public and other stakeholders.

“We can never be 100 percent ready [for disease outbreaks] because there are mutations out there,” said Erich Hoffmann, an official from the U.S.-based Defense Threat Reduction Agency. He added that preparedness pretty much depends on the kind and scale of the biological event so being on guard helps.

Despite the lack of robust discussion on preventing pandemics in Asia and the Pacific, a regional tool was formulated in 2005 to try to address this. The Asia-Pacific Strategy for Emerging Diseases, updated in 2010, aims to have a common framework to prepare for and respond to emerging disease outbreaks.

The strategy notes the need to focus on several issues, including surveillance, risk assessment and response, risk communication, public health emergency preparedness, regional preparedness, alert and response, and monitoring and evaluation, and laboratory, infection prevention and control.

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About the author

  • 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.