Address by Dr Poonam Khetrapal Singh, Regional Director, WHO South-East Asia at the ASEAN + 3 Health Ministers Meeting: Build up Regional Mechanism for Ebola Preparedness and Response, Bangkok, Thailand

15 December 2014

Excellencies, the Ministers of Health from ASEAN +3, UN Secretary-General; Dr Shin and Distinguished Delegates,

It is indeed a great privilege and honour to be here at this important meeting so kindly hosted by the Royal Thai Government to share with you some of the work done in the Regions to combat emerging infectious diseases especially Ebola Virus Disease.

At the outset I wish to commend the Honourable Health Ministers for their astute leadership in rapidly enhancing the state of preparedness against Ebola Virus Disease in their respective countries. With Your Excellency sustained efforts, we are sure that should a case of Ebola Virus Disease occur in this part of the world, our Member States shall be able to mount an effective response for swiftly containing this disease and preventing its spread amongst our communities.

In preparing to deal with emerging diseases the two Regions of WHO, namely the Western Pacific and the South-East Asia, have the Asia Pacific Strategy for Emerging Diseases or APSED. This bi-regional mechanism for preparedness and response against emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases was revised in 2010 to align it with the International Health Regulations - IHR (2005).

It gives me immense pleasure to report to you that joint development, implementation and sustenance of APSED has been possible because of your support and the keen desire of Dr Shin Young-soo, Regional Director, WPRO and me to provide comprehensive support to our Member States without any limitations of boundaries and administrative structure of WHO Offices.

To address the specific needs of Greater Mekong Sub-region, which is again a special and unique geographical area in the context of its public health importance for emerging infectious diseases, both Dr Shin and I have strengthened and further empowered the network of WHO Representatives of these six Member States of the two Regions. This will facilitate better understanding of disease epidemiology in this area and a coordinated response.

Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

The International Health Regulations (2005) articulated and advocated the need for sharing information in almost real-time and establishing capacity for early detection, diagnosis and control of serious events which may prove to be public health emergencies of international concern. All Member States have been working vigorously to achieve these capacities. From 11 Member States of WHO Region for South-East Asia, Indonesia and Thailand - both ASEAN countries - have already declared themselves to be IHR (2005) compliant. Other countries are also targeting to attain this compliance by mid-2016. This state of preparedness and enhanced response capacity are considered to have played a critical role in having lesser mortality in 2009 influenza pandemic as compared to all previous such pandemics. WHO will continue to collaborate with all Member States in assessing the state of preparedness in responding to the threat of emerging diseases and provide them all possible technical support that will make them compliant with IHR (2005) core capacities within the next two years. We are hopeful that investments made by Member States in IHR (2005) will yield immense value to countries in the fight against Ebola.

With the commitment of national authorities at the highest level, and with technical support from WHO offices, all countries have established multisectoral committees to coordinate preparedness and response, enhance essential capacity for screening at ports of entry, designated facilities for isolation and management of cases, a mechanism to confirm laboratory diagnosis, trained health workers in infection control practices and ensured effective communication to obviate panic and fear.

WHO will continue to collaborate with all Member States in assessing the state of preparedness in responding to the threat of emerging diseases and provide them all possible technical support that will make them compliant with IHR (2005) core capacities.

Excellencies,

The coming together of the ASEAN+3 countries to discuss Ebola, although we do not have any case in any Member State is indicative of the concern about Ebola that countries have, and also demonstrates the solidarity that underpins our desire to ensure full preparedness and, in the unlikely event of a case, a robust response, characterized by regional collaboration and open communication, to control it. The UN Secretary General recently said that the deadly Ebola outbreak can be ended “by the middle of next year” if the world speeds up its response. However, he cautioned that “our end game is not clear. We must get to zero cases. Ebola is not a disease where you can leave a few cases and say you’ve done enough.” Therefore, we need to do more, both in our own countries as well as to contribute to the global efforts.

In moving forward our focus must be to leverage preparedness measures to strengthen health systems so that they are able to absorb shocks or impacts of such events. ASEAN Member States are no stranger to these shocks and they have bounced back, not only from pandemics and outbreaks, but also from other devastating disasters such as tsunamis and cyclones. It is a perfect opportunity to re-invest in public health capacities with focus on IHR (2005) core capacities and see Ebola preparedness as not a one off event but the opportunity to be strategic, so that health systems are more robust and resilient in the future.

The outbreak is still ongoing in West Africa – and seems to continue to run ahead of all responders. Let us remember then that although we are preparing we should think of contributing to controlling the outbreak at source- we need to contribute to the ZERO CASE goal. It is with this two pronged strategy for better preparedness that contribute to zero case and investing in resilient health systems that Ebola can be halted. SEA Region has already deployed over 50 of its staff and we have several more ready to go to West Africa as and when needed.

WHO stands ready to provide whatever support is necessary to our Member States and I affirm my full commitment to ensure that we are with you in these difficult times. WHO is committed to work together with all Member States and partners through a coordinated approach between all its Offices to provide the best possible support to control Ebola in West Africa. I look forward to the deliberations in this meeting and, more importantly, to Your Excellencies guidance and leadership in dealing with this global crisis.

Thank you.

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