Is Asia Prepared for Ebola?

Countries around Asia and the Pacific were stung by the impacts of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and avian flu. They have been working together for years to prepare for the next outbreak.

When the deadly Ebola virus began spreading in Africa recently, countries in Asia responded with more than a decade of experience and expertise.

Governments in the region learned from the devastating outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in 2003, which infected more than 6,500 people worldwide and damaged consumer confidence in countries around Asia. The outbreak of the H5N1 virus (avian or bird flu) in 2003 and 2005 sent scares across the region as well.

If those outbreaks were not brought under control, or if another major epidemic was to strike the region, the impact could be profound. In addition to putting the lives and health of millions of people at risk, the economic costs could be staggering.

A pandemic, such as avian flu, could bring Asia's economic growth rate to zero or even push it into recession, according to a study by the Asian Development Bank (ADB). A lingering outbreak could reduce the global trade of goods and services by 14% and cause economic losses in Asia of $283 billion, or around 6.5 percentage points of gross domestic product.

“The psychological impact of the disease may be long lasting. Much of the Asian boom is built on confidence in the region's growth potential. A pandemic could shake that confidence and lower future investment.”

- ADB Economics and Research Development Policy Brief

“The psychological impact of the disease may be long lasting,” the study noted. “Much of the Asian boom is built on confidence in the region's growth potential. A pandemic could shake that confidence and lower future investment.”

Such an epidemic could have a much broader impact than simply a regional health scare, according to another ADB study. It could send a message to the investors who drive much of Asia’s economic growth and poverty reduction that countries in the region are unstable.

“From the perspective of foreign direct investment, a health shock such as SARS is likely to have economic effects akin to those seen after a political shock such as a revolution or an assassination,” the report stated. “This is quite different from the effects of widespread endemic prevalence of other communicable diseases such as HIV/AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis.”

If such an epidemic were to strike, and could not be brought under control, the poor would be hardest hit. With limited access to the health care system, they likely would delay seeking health care would could result in catastrophic illness and medical fees that drive them deeper into poverty.

International organizations, such as the World Health Organization and ADB, play a key role in preparing an effective response to a potential epidemic, but it is the governments in the region which must take the lead.

This response includes setting up the facilities and expertise to rapidly identify, diagnose and treat emerging diseases so they can be stopped at the source and do not spread across borders. This includes not only preparing experts, equipment, supplies and drugs but also working in partnership on a regional basis to share information and expertise.

In addition to regional cooperation, and national action plans, communities small and large are preparing local preparedness and response plans to spot the first sign of what could become the next global pandemic

Is Asia ready to respond to the next pandemic? Have your say on Facebook or vote in the poll.