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World Bank Helps Facilitate East Asia-Wide Ministerial Dialogue on Influenza A/H1N1 Response

  • Health ministers from 13 Asian countries came together in Bangkok to discuss ways to prevent and control the spread of A/H1N1 virus in East Asia.
  • Past efforts to prevent the spread of Avian Flu are paying off for this crisis through better global, regional and local coordination.
  • Policymakers pledged to activate national pandemic preparedness plans and intensify surveillance.

May 12, 2009 — Concerned by the sudden human-to-human spread of the Influenza A/H1N1 virus in various regions of the world, health ministers from 13 Asian countries came together in Bangkok last week to exchange information on ways to prevent and control its spread in East Asia.

With only limited numbers of confirmed cases in the Asia Pacific region, health officials gathered with international technical agencies to discuss how best to respond if the disease should spread.

The special health summit of 10 Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries plus three dialogue partners (China, Japan, and South Korea) was a major effort to boost political commitment, effective surveillance and rapid national and local responses. 

“This meeting, arranged on very short notice, is a testimony to the strong relationship and common resolve of ASEAN Plus Three to tackle a common threat, like the outbreak of this new strain of influenza,” said H.E. Mr. Abhisit Vejjajiva, Prime Minister of Thailand, in his opening address.

No room for complacency

Experience from the SARS epidemic and the threat from Avian Influenza (H5N1) highlighted for decision makers in East Asia that there is no room for complacency when responding to a possible pandemic. The Ministers agreed that global, regional and national solidarity were needed to keep the disease in check.

Through the facilitation of the World Bank’s Global Development Learning Network (GDLN) under the moderation of Toomas Palu, Lead Health Specialist in the World Bank’s East Asia and Pacific Region, ASEAN+3 senior public health officials engaged directly by live video conference with the World Health Organization (WHO) in Geneva, Switzerland the US Center for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta, USA. A videotaped message of solidarity from Mexico’s Minister of Health helped set the scene. 

During the interaction, Dr. Anne Schuchat, Acting Deputy Director of CDC, told the meeting that her institution had deployed 900 staff to quickly understand the virus and how it spreads to human populations. She said this flu looked a lot like a seasonal flu in terms of its transmissibility and severity. However, it differed from seasonal flu in that all hospitalizations in the US had been for people under 50.

Dr. Schuchat recognized that previous investments in preparation for the possible spread of the Avian Flu into human populations were paying off for this crisis through better coordination at the global, regional and local levels.

Dr. Keiji Fukuda, Acting Assistant Director-General of WHO, explained that the virus may be seeding itself in many parts of the world and it is critical that countries maintain high vigilance. He cautioned against complacency as the virus could reemerge in a more pathogenic form, especially with the flu season starting in the southern hemisphere. 

From Washington, Milan Brahmbhatt, the World Bank’s Economic Advisor for the Department of Poverty Reduction and Economic Management described the direct and indirect economic impacts of the SARS and Avian Influenza epidemics in the region.  He noted that the new threat comes at a time when governments around the world are facing serious shortfalls in their revenues as a result of the global downturn.  The Bank’s sector manager for Health, Nutrition and Population in the East Asia & Pacific region, Juan Pablo Uribe said: “The right response to challenges such as those posed by the Influenza A/H1N1 outbreak can only be possible after long-term, sustained efforts to strengthen the health system's capacity.” 

Emphasizing cooperation

In a videotaped message, Dr. Jose Angel Cordova Villalobos, the Minister of Public Health of Mexico emphasized the importance of international cooperation. “The situation we are going through now shows that problems must be solved locally but with a global vision… As we all know, health is a public good that extends beyond borders of our nations. Now, more than ever, this is evident.  This forces us to work in a coordinated way to ensure the health and equity of our regions.” 

Countries represented at the meeting agreed to send information and relevant biological materials, including clinical specimens, to WHO collaborating centers.  The meeting also discussed arrangements to distribute supplies of anti-virals and personal protective equipment around the region. 

There was support from the meeting for WHO’s view that limiting travel and imposing travel restrictions would only worsen disruption to countries already affected by the global economic downturn.

"The region has received a booster shot in our common efforts to address this new form of Influenza," said Dr. Surin Pitsuwan, the Secretary-General of ASEAN. “The discussions in this ministerial meeting have strengthened our resolve and capacity to initiate and harmonize our key public health measures, including travel-related policies and also mobilization of anti-viral drugs and logistics. The quick reaction and prevention mechanisms put in place by individual countries to intensify disease surveillance have demonstrated to the world that our region is better prepared for the crisis.” 

Policymakers pledged to activate their national pandemic preparedness plans and intensify surveillance in human populations and in animals. They are also committed to foster collaboration in the region and with the WHO to share data and information. 

“This is only the latest activity in a growing collaboration by the World Bank and GDLN with ASEAN to facilitate “just-in-time” access to global knowledge/expertise and to engage with partners and stakeholders from around the world” said Phil Karp, World Bank Institute and GDLN Coordinator for East Asia and Pacific. Earlier this year, the Bank worked with ASEAN to organize multi-stakeholder dialogues, through GDLN, immediately before and after the 14th ASEAN Summit, providing the Secretary-General with the opportunity to brief a broad range of stakeholders about key issues and outcomes of the Summit.