Mely Caballero-anthony And Gianna Gayle Herrera Amul, For The Straits Times

Keeping Ebola away from Asia: Lessons learnt from Sars

A boy looks at mannequins in protective outfits worn by health-care staff during the 2003 Sars outbreak at the atrium of the Tan Tock Seng Hospital. -- PHOTO: ST FILE
A boy looks at mannequins in protective outfits worn by health-care staff during the 2003 Sars outbreak at the atrium of the Tan Tock Seng Hospital. -- PHOTO: ST FILE

With the Ebola epidemic in West Africa showing no signs of being effectively contained, and the latest news of a health-care worker infected with the Ebola virus in the United States, prospects of the deadly disease hitting Asia can no longer be excluded.

Mr Anthony Banbury, head of the United Nations' emergency Ebola mission, has warned that the Ebola virus is "far ahead of us and every day the situation gets worse".

Against this scenario, how can Asia prepare itself?

Last year, East Asian states, through the Asean Plus Three (APT) framework (including China, Japan and South Korea), had committed to use cooperative mechanisms to improve disease surveillance and to boost pandemic preparedness and response in the region. Lessons from the Sars outbreak in 2003 had prompted countries in East Asia to establish this regional framework for combating highly infectious pandemic outbreaks. The global community has responded with a list of commitments. The US has topped the list of contributing countries, pledging about US$168 million (S$214 million), followed by Britain and Germany at US$19 million and US$15.3 million, respectively.

Most recently, the International Monetary Fund fast-tracked US$130 million in aid to fight the Ebola epidemic, while the World Bank had contributed US$105 million.

West African leaders and humanitarian workers on the ground have also urgently called for more assistance from qualified and trained health-care workers to be deployed to the affected areas to stem further infections.

So far, East Asian countries have responded to the call for help. The Philippines has recently announced plans to deploy a substantial number of its health-care workers to West Africa, while Malaysia has pledged to send more than 20 million medical gloves to affected countries. Japan has already given about US$2 million to the World Health Organisation (WHO), Unicef and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies since April, and further pledged to provide personal protective equipment and laboratory experts. Meanwhile, China has sent two medical teams, mobile laboratories, around 170 health-care workers and more than US$5 million in humanitarian aid.

The health crisis is also proving to be very costly for less developed regions. With the WHO projecting Ebola infections to escalate to 20,000, the World Bank estimated that the epidemic can financially cripple the West African region by US$32.6 billion in losses by the end of next year.

Sars had set back the East Asian region by US$20 billion in economic losses.

How prepared is the region?

East Asia has always been susceptible to infectious diseases.

But with Asean playing a central role, the region could hopefully put up a strong defence given existing regional frameworks and the lessons from Sars and bouts of episodes combating avian flu pandemics.

With its experience with Sars and bird flu, the WHO noted that East Asia is more prepared than other regions to respond to a possible pandemic with its existing mechanisms of surveillance and transparency.

One such mechanism is the APT regional disease surveillance mechanism, which has standardised a Protocol for Communication and Information Sharing on Emerging Infectious Diseases that encourages member states to report all cases of diseases that are categorised as a public health emergency of international concern.

Another mechanism is the Regional Multi-Sectoral Pandemic Preparedness Strategic Framework, which evolved from the Asean Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza Taskforce (2004-2010).

The framework combines collaborative pandemic preparedness with multi-level disaster management leveraging on the central role of the Asean Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance. In addition, the expertise in joint disease surveillance and clinical management of the APT Field Epidemiology Training Network can be utilised to conduct epidemiological studies and to share treatment protocols to comply with the Asean Minimum Standards on Joint Multi-sectoral Outbreak Investigation and Response. This framework has started discussions on the appropriate mechanisms to prevent and control Ebola.

In terms of transparency, timely information sharing and capacity building, another mechanism is the Asean Risk Communication Resource Centre, which aims to support efforts in managing health emergencies.

Despite WHO's pronouncement, East Asian countries cannot let their guard down. With more uncertainty confronting global health security, increased vigilance, stepped up efforts in surveillance and transparency, as well as heightened public awareness should always be the order of the day for the region.

Mely Caballero-Anthony is Associate Professor and Head of the Centre for Non-Traditional Security (NTS) Studies, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS). Gianna Gayle Herrera Amul is Senior Analyst with the RSIS Centre for NTS Studies.

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