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“The Ebola epidemic is the most severe, acute health emergency seen in modern times,” the WHO has admitted.

While it’s currently limited mainly to West Africa, is the Asia-Pacific region ready for Ebola? Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand are the most vulnerable because of their large migrant population working in the Middle East, only a short plane ride from West Africa.

Moreover, seven of the world’s 10 busiest air routes and air passengers are in the Asia-Pacific region, accounting for almost 30 per cent of global air traffic.  

Because of this, the fear of infection has spread around the world much faster than the virus itself, according to Li Ailan, director of health security and emergency at the WHO’s Western Pacific regional office. [1]

Li assures that the region is in a better position now to respond to any outbreak, stressing that communication is the first line of defence.

“We have dealt with diseases such as the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and avian influenza. Countries in the region have developed stronger systems to deal with these emerging infectious diseases. We had an exercise just last week with 23 countries and areas, going through the steps each would take if a case was detected,” she says.

SARS scare in 2002-2003

This brings to mind this writer’s experience as an expatriate in Singapore in 2002-2003, which was caught in the grip of the SARS scare. The fear bordered on the irrational. People were afraid to go to work even in the universities, regarded as the most hygienic portion of Singapore society.

People were conscious about talking to each other, observing for signs of people coughing. We did not go out to the market, or ride the trains. For weeks, we kept mostly to our homes and offices, and carefully wiped the handles of doors to the toilets or our offices.

We monitored every piece of news on radio, television and in newspapers and one memorable news was the excellent medical detective work both in Hong Kong and Singapore that traced how the outbreak reached Singapore. A businessman spread the germs on the door knob of a hotel room in Hong Kong. The germs then passed hands to travellers from Singapore.  

To make a long story short, irrational fear drives health epidemics like SARS and Ebola. That makes communication really the first line of defence against epidemics like Ebola.

Studies tell us that SARS spreads faster than Ebola because SARS is a flu virus that is spread through the air by coughing, while the Ebola virus is spread through contact with bodily fluids such as blood, urine, saliva and mucous. In short, Ebola does not spread as easily as SARS and other airborne viruses, and people should not succumb to irrational fears.

The WHO says it has round-the-clock monitoring of the regional and global situation, and is supporting each country to develop plans to contain the Ebola virus.

Country plans in South-East Asia

In Malaysia, government hospitals have been instructed to have isolation wards prepared for any Ebola cases while the Institute for Medical Research is on standby to perform the pathology tests required to identify the virus. They also have the National Crisis Preparedness and Response Centre on standby 24 hours, seven days a week to respond to any suspected cases, while personal protection equipment has been deployed in all states.

A contingency plan is also being put up by the Philippines, which on 15 October invited media to check out its Ebola containment system. The system starts with thermal scanning machines at the national airport, which is equipped with an isolation room should an Ebola case turn up. The use of thermal scanners has been common at the Manila airport since the Middle East respiratory syndrome corona virus (MERS-Cov) emerged in 2012.

The Philippine Research Institute for Tropical Medicine already has a complete diagnostic kit available to test for the Ebola virus, with results that can be confirmed and validated by the WHO.

The patient will be transported through special ambulance to the state-run San Lazaro Hospital in Manila, which has been designated as the dedicated Ebola centre. Medical staff, specially trained and equipped with protective gear, are on standby to handle Ebola patients.

In Thailand, anyone arriving at the airport from West Africa undergoes “soft screening” to enable Thai health authorities to monitor anyone who might have been exposed to the Ebola virus. Thailand’s Ministry of Public Health has placed health officials on high alert and instructed hospitals to quarantine patients with Ebola symptoms. [2,3]

Relying on risk communication

Compared to other regions of the developing world, South-East Asia is arguably better prepared to deal with an Ebola outbreak because of its relatively developed state of public health facilities and an educated public.

The only thing to fear is fear itself. This can be overcome with effective communication, which  experts call by a more technical term — risk communication, defined as communicating threats to society like terrorism and epidemics. Risk communication involves identifying the risks, how the public processes the risks, involves the community in disseminating preparedness messages, and provides specific response strategies.

We need risk communication to “harness public trust” and educate the public instead of feeding the fear.

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


[1] Gabriel Domínguez WHO: Ebola spread in Western Pacific would have 'huge consequences' (Deutsche Welle, 15 October 2014)
[2] Lean Alfred Santos Is Asia-Pacific ready for Ebola? (Devex, 13 October 2014)
[3] John Le Fevre Asia Prepares to Prevent Ebola Migration (The Establishment Post, 1 August 2014)