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SEAP region’s top science stories in 2014

Copyright: Adam Dean / Panos

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Still bearing the scars of natural disasters and disease outbreaks, nations in the South-East Asia and Pacific region braved a new string of calamities and major threats to lives in 2014.

At the same time, new discoveries and innovations during the year also pushed forward the search for technologies and products that could help lift the quality of life for people in the region.

All these became fodder for articles from our corps of writers and contributors that explained the science behind many of the problems besetting the region.

Extreme weather

Environmental concerns, foremost of which included ferocious effects of climate change, came out on top of the most important topics that SciDev.Net’s South-East Asia and Pacific Edition covered in 2014.

With the hugely destructive impact of Supertyphoon Haiyan of November 2013 still fresh in the minds of residents in the Philippines and Vietnam, as well as Micronesia where it originated, severe weather events were closely monitored in 2014. Nearly 30 weather disturbances were registered in the Pacific area during the year, of which ten had winds of around 118 kilometres per hour. Three of these developed into supertyphoon strength, including Hagupit which in early December lashed several communities in the Philippines located near the same path that Haiyan crossed in 2013.

Thanks to more reliable forecasts, intensive preparations and early preemptive moves by local officials, the number of casualties from Hagupit was much lower compared to Haiyan’s, although damage to property and infrastructure was also severe.

Health threats

A major story that South-East Asian and Pacific nations closely followed was the Ebola outbreak in Africa. Although the deadly disease has not reached the region, anxiety was high owing to the large numbers of people that move between these parts of the globe.

In October, delegates from 37 countries in the Western Pacific forged agreements to draw up action plans for public emergencies and disasters that may arise from Ebola and similar threats to health in the region.

One sector that did suffer from the Ebola scare was trade. Deliveries of rice from Asia to Ebola-hit countries in Africa declined, according to trade reports, after ships refused to make trips to affected areas. Those that continued to ply the route demanded much higher freight charges.

Elsewhere in the region, studies have noted that drug-resistant malaria parasites are militating against efforts to control the disease, with researchers warning that a malaria pandemic could develop if the use of counterfeit or substandard drugs, as well as the unregulated use of artemisin-based drugs, is not controlled.

More recently, a study noted that South-East Asia’s armed forces, cited as “under recognised” transmission reservoirs of malaria infections.

Breakthroughs on other fronts

While these most reported stories may have painted a grim picture, positive moves were noted on other fronts. In the campaign against dengue, one of the most pernicious of tropical diseases, the pharmaceutical company Sanofi Pasteur announced in July that a new vaccine will be commercially available by the middle of 2015.

The Sanofi vaccine has reached the third — and last — trial phase in South-East Asia and has reportedly shown an overall efficacy of 56 per cent reduction of dengue fever incidence and 80 per cent reduction in serious cases.

In Thailand, tests with the use of insecticide-treated uniforms have succeeded in reducing dengue infection among schoolchildren, according to a study published in September. Whether this dengue prevention method will prosper depends on its affordability among the intended users.

Another technique aimed at controlling dengue is the use of gene markers to find survival patterns of the mosquitoes that act as carriers of the disease. By using these gene markers, according to experiments in Vietnam, the lifespan of mosquitoes can be shortened, thus effectively breaking the transmission cycle of the dengue virus.

The fight against malaria gained strength early in 2014 with a partnership between two organisations, the Program for Appropriate Technology in Health (PATH) and the Global Health Innovative Technology (GHIT) Fund, under which the latter extended a grant of US$600,000 to support PATH’s Malaria Vaccine Initiative. The grant is part of GHIT’s investment of more than US$12 million in the global campaign against malaria.

The partnership is expected to further push the progress made by the GHIT programme to produce the world’s first vaccine to prevent malaria. GHIT is a public-private partnership with Japan that also gets funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Food security concerns

Food security and farm production were also on top of the science-based 2014 stories in the region.

A symposium hosted jointly by SciDev.Net’s South-East Asia and Pacific regional office and the International Rice Research Institute in July brought out findings that member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) have been doing well in terms of food security.

ASEAN countries have redoubled efforts to strengthen the management of domestic food supplies and to shore up regional arrangements for sharing food security information. Science and technology will be key to food security in the region, experts at the symposium said.

Lastly, there were a number of articles which tackled the coming ASEAN integration and how science could play an important role in it. We would see a lot more of articles on this in the coming year as the integration comes close on December 31, 2015.

Indeed, science and technology as a pillar of development in South-East Asia and Pacific became more prominent in 2014. If you want to highlight other stories in this field, do share with us your opinions in the space for comments below.


Jose Galang is the subeditor of SciDev.Net’s South-East Asia and Pacific edition.


This article has been produced by SciDev.Net's South-East Asia & Pacific desk.


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