Strengthening public health laboratories against emerging diseases

News release

The countries of Asia and the Pacific need to continue to strengthen public health laboratory systems to improve their ability to detect and respond to outbreaks of emerging infectious diseases.

This was the conclusion of the Second Meeting on Laboratory Strengthening on Emerging Infectious Diseases in the Asia Pacific Region, which took place on 4 to 6 June at the World Health Organization Regional Office for the Western Pacific.

The Asia Pacific region is a hotspot for infectious diseases, highlighted by the recent outbreak of avian influenza A(H7N9), the SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) outbreak in 2003 and the ongoing sporadic cases of avian influenza A(H5N1). Participants voiced concerns about threats from outside the region, such as MERS-CoV (Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus), which has infected 77 people and caused 40 deaths in the Middle East and Europe.

“It is difficult to predict the next outbreak,” says Dr Li Ailan, Director of the Regional Office's Division of Health Security and Emergencies. “Laboratory capacity must exist as part of the frontline response in order to counter existing threats and detect new ones quickly, accurately and safely.”

One of the key means by which the nearly 40 delegates agreed to strengthen national laboratory systems was by bolstering intersectoral and interdisciplinary cooperation in the surveillance and diagnosis of emerging infectious diseases.

WHO assists Member States to develop their national public health laboratory workplans through its Asia Pacific Strategy for Emerging Diseases (APSED 2010). APSED (2010) helps Member States mount a collective defence against emerging infectious diseases, as stipulated by the International Health Regulations (2005).

Another major objective of WHO is to continue to work closely with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and the World Organisation for Animal Health to foster coordination between laboratories and surveillance systems (including those for animal health) among Member States.

Key topics discussed at the meeting include capacity-building at the subnational level and external quality assurance. WHO would like to build on its external quality assessment programme for dengue to include other pathogens, such as chikungunya. Improved surveillance and diagnosis speeds up detection and identification of emerging infectious diseases, allowing for a faster and more effective containment response. Consequently, this can reduce the impact of immediate health and socioeconomic consequences.

A frequent concern is that some governments do not invest enough in preparedness. Reflecting on the recent A(H7N9) influenza outbreak in China, Dr Li stressed that “the effectiveness of the response demonstrates the value of the past investment in China and regionally after SARS”. China has greatly expanded and improved its laboratory and surveillance capabilities since the earlier outbreaks.

Delegates pledged to improve their national workplans and exchange ideas and experiences so as to further strengthen their surveillance, diagnosis and cooperation capacities as called for under the International Health Regulations.

To capitalize on this experience, WHO’s Western Pacific Surveillance and Response Journal has called for articles on the contributions of laboratories in the surveillance of and response to infectious diseases in the Western Pacific Region.

For more information, please contact:

Dr Frank Konings
Technical Officer, Emerging Disease Surveillance and Response
Tel.: +632 528 9948

Mr Timothy O’Leary
Public Information Officer
Tel.: +632 528 9992