Singapore hosted a high-level panel debate on "International Health Security" to commemorate World Health Day (WHD) on April 7.
The panel experts advocated greater transparency from governments and health bodies and pushed for the need to improve national health structures to deal with new risks.
According to WHO director-general Margaret Chan, "all nations are at risk. This universal vulnerability creates a need for collective defenses and for shared responsibility in making these defenses work."
Newly emerging diseases such as bird flu and SARS were at the top of the forum’s agenda. The panel experts and participants identified that a crucial challenge remains for countries and private industries around the world to share information and their own health knowledge and infrastructure, in order to “work together as a global community to bring to bear a collective defense system that can mitigate the risk to the entire humankind," Chan said.
Chan added that the revised International Health Regulations – with effect on June 15 – would help build public health capacity and strengthening requirements so that "any public health emergency of international concern" gets reported.
Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in particular, questioned why health agencies did not release more data and share viral samples, such as what intelligence agencies have done in the war on terror.
PM Lee’s query speaks directly to the recent issue of Indonesia’s sharing of H5N1 virus samples with WHO. Earlier last December, the former had stopped sharing specimens over the claim that they would be used to develop vaccines that would be rendered unaffordable to poor nations in the event of a pandemic. Last week, the former relented, but on the condition that the specimens would not be made freely available to commercial vaccine makers.
In response, PM Lee praised the Indonesia-WHO agreement as a positive step forward, and a model other countries can follow. WHO chief Margaret Chan also remarked that Indonesia's move “highlights the importance of equitable access of affordable medicine, so we are trying to find solutions.”
The worst is yet over. Indonesia’s record bird flu deaths have now reached 71, and the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reported earlier this week that the nation – and likewise for Egypt and Nigeria – may become reservoirs for the H5N1 strain to spread to other countries as it continues to circulate in Africaand Asia.
In Indonesia, the FAO reports that only three provinces out of 33 are free from bird flu, with the disease remaining endemic in Java, Sumatra, Bali and South Sulawesi and sporadic outbreaks happening in other parts of the country. Currently, the nation’s large size, weak national veterinary service and lack of resources render control of the disease difficult. In Egypt – accounting for highest number (32) of bird flu cases outside Asia – the FAO said that the ongoing lack of compensation to farmers for culling their poultry had helped the virus keep a foothold. Elsewhere, Nigeria authorities had failed to control the movement of poultry and poultry products out of infected areas.
A promising step forward came during the fifth session of the Indonesia-Egypt Joint Commission when both countries are exploring the possibility of cooperation in producing bird flu vaccines. Current ongoing plans include setting up a sub-committee and tapping on Egypt’s experience in producing insulin and exporting large quantities of medicines at competitive prices. (5 April 2007)
World Health chief: Transparency, better health structures can help tackle threats (AP, 2 April 2007)
Bird flu may spread from Indonesia, Egypt, Nigeria: FAO (Reuters, 2 April 2007)
Jakarta-WHO deal on sample sharing a step forward: PM (The Straits Times, 3 April 2007)
RI, Egypt exploring cooperation to produce bird flu vaccines (Antara, 3 April 2007)