at the International Meeting of Ministers of Health on Pandemic Influenza Preparedness
Ottawa, Canada, 24-25 October 2005

Thank you for inviting the ASEAN Secretariat to participate in this important meeting. Much has been said about avian influenza and the possibility of a flu pandemic. Four ASEAN Member Countries have experienced outbreaks, and the ASEAN region could face an unprecedented challenge in addressing avian influenza. We at the ASEAN Secretariat have prioritized five key actions to respond to the challenge.

1. Strengthen institutional linkages within countries and across borders

ASEAN is addressing this at different levels and platforms. To specifically address avian influenza, ASEAN Ministers on Agriculture and Forestry established an ASEAN Task Force on Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) in October 2004. The Task Force has developed an action plan with eight priority areas, ranging from disease surveillance and emergency preparedness to information-sharing, public awareness and effective containment measures. The human health aspect of avian influenza is monitored by the ASEAN Experts Group on Communicable Diseases through the ASEAN Plus Three Emerging Infectious Diseases Programme. Regional coordination for early warning and response, laboratory diagnostics and epidemiological surveillance is in place.

2. Develop partnerships with all stakeholders in public and private sectors and civil society

The impact of avian influenza goes beyond both animal and human health sectors. ASEAN is working with our Dialogue Partners and relevant UN/international agencies to strengthen regional capacities across sectors, so that all relevant stakeholders in public and private sectors, and civil society, can link their efforts effectively.

Partnerships with the private sector, especially pharmaceutical manufacturers, will be necessary in increasing the region’s vaccine capacity and stockpiling treatment medications. Cooperation from sectors other than health and agriculture, such as information, tourism, trade and industry, foreign affairs and finance, is important in maintaining public confidence and dealing with the impact. Engaging the civil society is important because it is at the grassroots of our community and they can surly assist governments to increase effectiveness of containment measures.

3. Sharing information, knowledge and success

From the SARS experience of 2003, ASEAN learned that an effective means of prevention is to ensure our peoples are better informed on the causes of the disease, its main modes of transmission and preventive steps to take. Providing researchers and public information bodies with prompt and reliable information on avian influenza occurrences (either in poultry or human) is critically in lessening public fear of the virus. Sharing success stories and lessons learned from each specific case experienced thus far can also help institute better preparedness, surveillance and testing procedures in animal and human health systems.

We overcame SARS by acting with transparency. Timely information was provided on preventive measures. Strict quarantine and monitoring measures were instituted. New equipment and technology for thermal screening at exit and entry points were shared freely. Hotlines were activated to ensure quick information-sharing.

4. Change mindset in farming and poultry management practices

Quick information-sharing will help dispel popular beliefs and old habits hampering preventive measures, particularly with regard to livestock management. Enforcing strict on-farm and personal bio-security practices can help minimize infection and spread.

Farmers must avoid intensive and unhygienic poultry farming that leads to overcrowding of chickens causing close contact with fecal and other excretions. For example, chicken and other farm animals should not be allowed into human dwellings, and coops should be constructed to prevent mixing of poultry with wild birds. Close monitoring and control of trade or marketing of live chickens with no mixing of different avian species on farms and at live poultry markets will be essential. This means standardizing bio-security practices in poultry production and maintaining adequate control over transportation of poultry products, especially live poultry.

5. Exert leadership and be on top of the situation

High-level meetings took place throughout 2004 to set directions in addressing the challenge. Several technical meetings were also convened to devise cooperative measures in dealing with both animal and human health aspects of the disease. WHO, the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) and FAO were closely consulted. One example is the recent consultation of human and animal health experts held in Jakarta on 17-18 October 2005. This consultation came up with working-level agreements on dealing with avian influenza outbreaks within and across borders.

ASEAN Leaders have committed themselves to combat the spread of avian flu. In addition to strengthening regional systems, networks and procedures for surveillance, early warning and response, urgent steps are being undertaken to improve monitoring and assessing the risk of pandemic influenza in all Member Countries where the avian flu H5N1 virus is present. Additional resources are being allocated and mobilized to destroy the infected poultry and redress the shortage of vaccine needed.

Conclusion

ASEAN’s strength is through active and personal engagement in collective responses to crises, particularly those that are multi-dimensional and require coordinated responses. This was shown in combating SARS and the 1997-98 financial crisis, and in coping with the 2004 tsunami catastrophe. In a similar vein, ASEAN is determined not to let avian influenza get the better of us.