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ASEAN Plus Meeting Hopes to Limit Swine Flu's Economic Damage

  • Ron Corben

Ministers and officials from the 10 nation Association of South East Asian Nations - ASEAN - as well as China, South Korea and Japan are set to meet in Thailand to boost regional cooperation in dealing with any outbreak of the swine influenza A-H1N1 virus. Officials say a key goal is to improve monitoring measures to avoid a wider impact on the region's economy, especially tourism and transport.

The meeting of health ministers and officials from the 10 member Association of South East Asian Nations hopes to boost regional cooperation in combating the threat from the swine flu virus in Asia.

Due to get underway on Thursday, the meeting is scheduled to hear from United Nations officials, the United States' Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius and Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO) Dr Margaret Chan by way of video conference.

But in a briefing with journalists Wednesday, Thai Health Ministry officials said a primary aim will be to limit the wider potential damage on the region's economy, especially in areas of transport and tourism.

"The whole region has many people traveling. So the hot issue is how to control the disease without any damage to the business sector, the tourism, and the transportation economy. So the leaders have to use their own judgment and we really hope we can do that to minimize the damages," said Dr. Kumnuan Ungchusak, a senior expert in preventive medicine from the Ministry of Public Health.

Kumnuan said a proposal is to set possible geographical limits concerning any influenza outbreak rather than to designate a whole country as being infected with flu.

"At this meeting the technical people will try to propose not to use the whole country but specify - set one criterion - so we know where the outbreak is. In that case when we provide some information or traveling precaution it will be specific; if we can do that this will limit the impact on tourism," he said.

Under this plan travel advisories would cover cities or regions rather than entire countries as well as providing for exit screening.

Discussions would also call for a survey of available medical supplies and stocks within the region and international organizations and ease of access to medical supplies at short notice.

Cross border cooperation is also on the agenda especially in requests for medical supplies, hospital rooms and surveillance teams, as well as looking to call on the WHO to provide assistance, officials said.

Worldwide there are currently about 1,500 confirmed cases of swine flu infection in at least 21 countries. In Thailand, officials said, there were still no reported cases but strict surveillance remained in place.

But reports said officials from the Philippines were pressing for a more concerted regional effort to tackle the virus. The Philippines has placed five people under observation after showing flu like symptoms.

Officials said the region is well prepared to face any potential widespread influenza outbreak given past experience in cooperation on the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in 2003 and in recent years the outbreak of bird flu across the region.

The meeting is scheduled to conclude Friday with an expected joint ministerial statement aimed at promoting collaboration among the ASEAN members as well as measures to combat a potential pandemic, with a hoped for political commitment to implement any measures.