Countries in Asia and the Pacific are no strangers to emerging diseases that can spread fast, take lives, and slow down economic activity. Regional strategies for stopping new viruses are once again being put into action.

Not long after people in the Republic of Korea began falling ill from Middle East Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus (MERS CoV), a team from the World Health Organization (WHO) and the country’s Ministry of Health and Welfare were dispatched to the scene to assess the situation and formulate a strategy.

The quick reaction was part of a strategy for dealing with dangerous new diseases that countries throughout Asia and the Pacific have been developing for more than a decade. Since 2003, countries in the region have been on alert for the next possible pandemic. 

“MERS belongs to the same family of pathogens as the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome [SARS] virus, which killed about 800 people worldwide after first appearing in the People’s Republic of China in 2003.”

Susann Roth, a social protection specialist with ADB

“MERS belongs to the same family of pathogens as the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome [SARS] virus, which killed about 800 people worldwide after first appearing in the People’s Republic of China in 2003,” notes Susann Roth, a social protection specialist with ADB, in a recent blog post.

Since that devastating outbreak, governments have worked together to address disease outbreaks through improved communicable disease control along borders; quick and effective diagnosis and treatment; open communication among countries in the region; and informed public communication strategies, among other measures.

Affecting the poor

If such an epidemic were to strike the region, and could not be brought under control, the poor would be the most affected. With limited access to health facilities, they could be forced to delay seeking health care and fall into catastrophic illness resulting in medical fees that drive them deeper into poverty.

International organizations, such as the WHO and ADB, work with governments in the region to set up the facilities and expertise to rapidly identify, diagnose, and treat emerging diseases so they can be stopped at 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, many communities small and large across the region are preparing local response plans to spot the first sign of what could become the next global pandemic.

Economic cost of a pandemic

The stakes are high when it comes to addressing emerging diseases quickly. In addition to putting the lives and health of millions of people at risk, when a communicable disease hits the most economically dynamic region in the world 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 ADB.

If an outbreak is not brought under control, and lingers for months, it 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,” the study notes. "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.”

According to another ADB study, a pandemic could send a message to potential investors in Asia’s developing economies that the region is not a stable place to do business.

“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 states. “This is quite different from the effects of widespread endemic prevalence of other communicable diseases such as HIV/AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis.”