Thursday, April 12, 2012

Experts to study new diseases

In an unprecedented cross-border medical partnership, 17 research institutions from eight regional countries are teaming up for three long-term studies into emerging disease threats across Southeast Asia. 

The Eco-health Emerging Infectious Diseases research program, inaugurated in 

Vientiane, Laos, last month, will bring together local experts to study the risk of animal-borne infectious diseases in the region. 

Funded by a collaboration between AusAID and Canada’s International Development Research Centre, the project outlays US$4 million over three years to examine the threat of infectious diseases and identify public health measures to prevent their emergence. 

Global health experts consider Southeast Asia to have a high likelihood of disease emergence on account of its rapidly rising human and animal population densities. 

Recent experience, such as the 2002 Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) epidemic and persistent concerns about the potential virulence of the H5N1 avian influenza virus, have shown that the region’s healthcare systems would struggle to cope with a major infectious disease outbreak.

Cambodia-based Pasteur Institute will be participating in the study, identifying and developing responses to new infectious disease threats alongside research institutions from Laos, Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines. 

Prem Damodaran, IDRC’s regional spokesperson in Singapore, says the programme will assist regional governments in mitigating the likelihood of an infectious disease outbreak, and help develop appropriate responses in the event that an outbreak occurs. 

“Bird flu, H1N1, SARS, dengue fever, Nipah virus and other animal-related vector- borne diseases are in the air all the time – they have the potential of blowing up to pandemic proportions pretty quickly,” says Damodaran. “The programme flags that possibility as real and builds the capacity, socially, environmentally and on the policy level, to tackle such a situation.”

The studies will include government representatives from the region to assist in formulating policy responses. The IDRC’s regional programme manager, Hein Mallee, says that the Eco-EID program will be instrumental in framing future public health measures. 

“It’s still early days, but the studies are expected to inform policies at different levels,” says Mallee. “The research is specifically framed to take into account the broader systems and not only focus on traditional public health approaches.” 

“So, we do expect that towards the end of the studies, [the research] will be taking a holistic approach in making recommendations to address problems and to guide future development in ways that avoid such problems.”

Another Eco-EID study will examine the health of poultry production clusters in China, Indonesia and Cambodia’s neighbours. High-density poultry farms have in the past helped to quickly spawn virulent clusters of avian influenza, which is viewed by medical professionals as a potentially catastrophic health hazard.

“Bird flu is a primary health concern in Southeast Asia,” Mallee says. “The dilemma with bird flu is that it presents a relatively small overall health threat to people at this point, but that there are serious concerns that it may become transmissible among humans and cause a pandemic.”