Fighting disease is a regional battle

This week, more than 1,200 health professionals, industry experts and healthcare professionals gathered at the Prince Mahidol Awards Conference (PMAC) in Bangkok to discuss best practices and cross-sector solutions to addressing infectious diseases in Asia. It is a theme as relevant now as it was when the Rockefeller Foundation first sought a partnership in Thailand for an anti-hookworm campaign in 1915, but given the complexities of our 21st century world it has never been as urgent.

Myanmar officials unload relief aid packages donated to victims of Cyclone Nargis by the Thai Red Cross in May 2008.

Climate change and severe weather events, changing disease patterns, disparities in access to quality education and health, and rapid urbanisation have all increased a critical need for us to prepare for and bounce back stronger from acute shocks and chronic stresses. And in the context of the interconnected nature of our planet, the resilience of one country often depends on the resilience of many others.

These realities underscore the importance of cross-regional surveillance, trust, and communication. In 1999, the Rockefeller Foundation supported the creation of the Mekong Basin Disease Surveillance (MBDS) Network comprising six countries _ Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Vietnam, Thailand and China _ which have heavy traffic across their borders. The network facilitates research, information sharing, disease monitoring and expedites response efforts throughout Southeast Asia, allowing public health officials to move as rapidly and flexibly as the diseases they attempt to track and treat.

Quantifying the impact of events averted is difficult at best, however evidence suggests that the MBDS Network, and the cross-border collaboration it has fostered, has saved lives by stopping outbreaks soon after they surfaced. In 2008, following the devastation wrought by Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar and Thailand, health authorities feared that without immediate intervention, a second wave of fatalities from infectious diseases might spread to neighbouring countries. A rapid response team of physicians, psychologists, and environmentalists from Thailand and the Thai Red Cross was mobilised to assist victims of the cyclone in the Myuangmya region, approximately 73km from the hardest-hit area. As a result, no new outbreaks were detected and a potential pandemic was averted. This post-disaster relief effort would not have been successful _ or even possible _ without the trust and collaboration fostered by the network.

This week, the MBDS Network celebrated another momentous achievement, marking a new chapter as a foundation with its own mission and mandate to continuously deepen its efforts in public health. In so doing, the experience, institutional knowledge, relationships and trust built by the network over the past decade will be sustained in a way that will further bolster disease surveillance capacity and resilience in an increasingly complex region.

The opportunity for essential global collaboration has been spurred by the official launch this week of another new institution: The non-governmental organisation, Connecting Organisations for Regional Disease Surveillance (Cords), promotes the global exchange of best practices, surveillance strategies and other innovations among regional disease surveillance networks. Comprising the MBDS Foundation and five counterparts from across Asia, Africa, Eastern Europe and the Middle East, Cords enhances the ability of its regional network members to improve global surveillance, complementing the efforts of leading human, animal and food health organisations.

The emergence and establishment of new institutions like Cords and the MBDS Foundation represent significant achievements that demonstrate "the power of original thinking, close collaboration across disciplines and borders, and a determined commitment to solutions", as noted by David Rockefeller, Chairman of the Board of the Rockefeller Foundation, in his keynote remarks at PMAC.

None of this would have been possible without the work of Prince Mahidol himself, and we at the Rockefeller Foundation stand in admiration of Thailand's great advancements in medicine and public health. Looking ahead to the next century, we remain inspired by the Thai spirit of inquisitiveness and innovation, and will call upon it often as we seek to build even stronger networks to meet the regional and global challenges in the next 100 years.

Ashvin Dayal is the Managing Director of the Rockefeller Foundation, Asia.

About the author

Writer: Ashvin Dayal