Seeking Solutions to Health Crises

With the world population now estimated at 7 billion, international attention has focused on the impact of the rising population on the battle against poverty, global food security and climate change. A more crowded world is also likely to be more vulnerable to emerging and rapidly-spreading infectious diseases.

Recent health crises such as severe acute respiratory syndrome and the epidemic of avian influenza have highlighted the intricate relationships and linkages between people, animals and ecosystems as well as the ease and rapidity with which diseases travel across borders.

Emerging and re-emerging diseases also affect human security and are therefore increasingly part of international policies for crisis prevention.

Tackling epidemics and pandemics in today’s globalised world clearly requires international cooperation. With a majority of human infectious diseases commonly attributed to have originated in animals, working across disciplines is also necessary.

Recognizing that human health, animal health, and ecosystem health are inextricably linked, international organizations and governments have endorsed a worldwide “One Health” approach which seeks to promote, improve, and defend the health and well-being of all species.

The focus of this global movement is on the prevention of risks and the mitigation of effects of crises that originate at the interface between humans, animals and their various environments. Enhancing cross-sectoral “whole society” cooperation and collaboration between physicians, veterinarians, other scientific health and environmental professionals is a priority. The aim is to improve international capacity and management to achieve these goals.

Asian and European governments are committed to integrating the One Health approach into their policies.

The European Union has set up a new animal health strategy and initiated joint infectious diseases research programs in key areas such as vector-borne diseases, vaccine development and neglected zoonoses (diseases transmitted from animals to humans).

Meanwhile, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations is playing a leading role in regional arrangements involving animal and human health sectors, in particular, in terms of how to respond to outbreaks of infectious diseases at a regional level.

Having made an early pledge to integrate the "One Health" approach in its regional mechanisms, Asean is already committed to going beyond animal health, towards the human health and environmental sectors. Asean is also taking into consideration the influence of other sectors such as education, infrastructure, trade and tourism.

Recent health crises have in fact encouraged Asean members to work together at a regional level. In addition, Asean Plus Three (China, Japan, and Republic of Korea) have developed the Emerging Infectious Diseases Program to tackle pandemics such as SARS and avian flu.

Asean has also developed close relations with the European External Action Service and the European Commission, the executive arm of the European Union, which have identified cross-border cooperation in animal and human health as a key feature of their 2007-2011 Strategy for Regional EU-Asia Cooperation. A total of €48 million worth of EU regional funds have been invested since 2007 in health-based cross-border cooperation in Asia, combining animal and human health cooperation for the first time, in addition to the environment.

A separate Highly Pathogenic Emerging and Re-emerging diseases (HPED) program, started by the Commission in January 2010, aims to strengthen the institutional capacities of Asean, SAARC (South Asia Association for Regional Cooperation) and their Secretariats to control HPED and to improve epidemic and pandemic preparedness in the region in a sustainable manner.

For the next three years (2011-2013), the commission’s major focus will be on driving the "One Health" approach forward in tandem with its major international partners.

Asian and European health experts meet through the Public Health Network set up by the Asia Europe Foundation (ASEF) to encourage cooperation between the two regions on infectious diseases.

There is potential for more Asia-Europe cooperation on One Health initiatives. A recently published EU-funded study1 showcases 10 “One Health” case studies in Asia and Europe including emergency measures to address serious outbreaks of infectious disease, community engagement projects to improve disease surveillance and control and communication strategies to change risky behavior.

The document, which also includes a catalogue of data bases covering key One Health documents, focal points and One Health programs and activities, provides a good basis for further Asia-Europe discussion – and cooperation – on One Health initiatives.

Such collaboration can be done best through the framework provided by the Asia-Europe Meeting. An Asia- Europe Meeting conclave on One Health is in fact planned for next year.

Asem can help combine Asia's experience in communicable diseases outbreaks with the EU's experience in institution building. Asia and Europe can learn from each other’s experience by exchanging information and “best practice,” including through collaboration between universities, research institutes and pharmaceutical companies.

Better coordination of existing initiatives, projects and programs is needed through the creation of a One Health Asem network and connection of existing data bases.

Stronger involvement of the private sector will also help boost the impact of One Health initiatives as will greater outreach efforts to communicate the approach to human and animal health specialists as well as to the broader public.

Although the One Health movement cannot be owned by any one government or organisation, governance and coordination – including between Asia and Europe - are needed to tackle the growing complexity of the challenges associated with a new global dynamic in which the health of humans, animals and ecosystems are inextricably linked.

A high-level technical meeting on the One Health Governance and on the set-up of a Global One Health Network took place in Atlanta on 31st October and 1st November 2011. The Asem meeting next year will also look at the governance issue.

(Shada Islam is a journalist in Brussels with a long experience of EU-Asia relations. This is a part of a series of articles being published by Ecorys Research and Consulting, as member of the COWI Consortium which is under contract to the European Commission, to look at different aspects of the multi-faceted Asia-Europe relationship. This article represents the views of the author and does not commit the European Commission in any way.)