Republic of Korea: Learning from an outbreak to improve health security

The Republic of Korea has translated hard lessons from the 2015 MERS outbreak into enhanced capacity to manage health threats. This is a key conclusion of the Joint External Evaluation (JEE) mission to the country, which took place 28 August to 1 September 2017.

A JEE assesses a country’s capacity to prevent, detect and respond rapidly to public health threats, in line with the International Health Regulations (IHR) (2005). External evaluators work with national teams to evaluate 19 technical areas of work covering 48 indicators.

The JEE mission to the Republic of Korea was coordinated by the World Health Organization (WHO) Regional Office for the Western Pacific, in collaboration with the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC). The JEE team consisted of 11 experts from WHO and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, as well as experts from Canada, China, Finland, Japan, Singapore, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and the United States of America. A representative from Australia also observed.

“We commend the Republic of Korea for establishing comprehensive legislation, cultivating a strong culture of preparedness, and applying innovative technologies to public health,” said Dr Li Ailan, Regional Emergency Director of the WHO Regional Office for the Western Pacific. “This noteworthy progress demonstrates the country’s commitment to putting in place capacities required under IHR, and improving the health security of their people.”

JEEs are voluntary. The Republic of Korea is the first developed country, and the fifth Member State in the WHO Western Pacific Region, to go through the JEE process.

Some of the areas in which the country was found to be particularly strong include high levels of immunization coverage robust systems to monitor and control outbreaks of foodborne disease; an impressive network of national laboratories able to test a wide range of pathogens from human, food and environmental samples; and a dedicated team to address antimicrobial resistance.

The Republic of Korea has achieved sustainable capacity for most of the IHR core capacities, so the JEE team cautioned about the dangers of complacency.

“Health security capacities are continuously put to the test. Continued vigilance, rigor and commitment are essential. Strengthening public health functions through multi-sectoral effort and stable investment is the key to protecting people from health threats,” Dr Li Ailan added.

Some opportunities for improvement identified by the JEE include prioritizing the most pressing public health risks and mapping the resources to address them, establishing a system for deploying health personnel during public health emergencies, and risk communication mechanisms within the country, including affected communities, and with key partners.

Considering the borderless nature of health threats, the joint national and international review also urged the country to explore establishing a system for regional and international collaboration, as well as resource-sharing in case of a large public health emergency.

"In an increasingly interconnected world, health security threats are likely to become more frequent and complex to manage. Shared threats mean shared responsibility and an ever-growing need to work towards a common objective. If one country is vulnerable then no country is secure," said Dr Li.

The Asia Pacific Strategy for Emerging Diseases and Public Health Emergencies (APSED III) is a common regional framework for action that guides the efforts of all Member States and ensures that progress made by countries like the Republic of Korea benefit the whole Region.