Asia-Pacific health ministers have agreed to step up regional efforts to prevent future outbreaks of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome and other infectious diseases. The ministers acknowledged that the recent SARS outbreak has helped promote reform within the region's health systems.
Health ministers and officials from the 21 members of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation Forum, or APEC, agreed to cooperate on common new guidelines, and to share information in combating outbreaks of serious diseases, like SARS.
They met this week in Thailand, as the World Health Organization was declaring that the battle against the pneumonia-like disease might have been won, at least for the moment.
But Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, in his opening address, warned that the region must remain on guard. Mr. Thaksin said it was not known whether SARS would re-emerge, and he said other unknown diseases could easily come along in the future.
SARS first emerged in Southern China. It struck hardest in China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore, but also spread to other Asian nations, and to Canada. It has killed more than 800 people worldwide, and infected some 8,500 individuals.
The WHO issued advisories against travel to Asia, and the region's economies were severely affected. According to an Asian Development Bank assessment, East and Southeast Asian economies suffered more than $12 billion in economic losses during the several months of the outbreak.
New Zealand's health minister, Annette King, says stepped up cooperation will go some way toward preventing the widespread panic that brought such economic damage this time around. She listed several results of the outbreak.
"Acceptance of the need for a common action plan for APEC nations; and the need for us to take a coordinated approach to things like travel advisories and border control; and to have very good information-sharing and cooperation and openness and transparency about the issue, and, finally, looking forward as to what we ought to be planning for in the future," she said.
Ms. King says that rapid sharing of information will act to minimize any widespread transmission of infectious diseases in the future.
China's government was severely criticized by the international community for covering up the existence of the disease, after it first appeared in Guangdong Province in November.
China's vice premier and health minister, Wu Yi, acknowledged that her country's public health system had been weak and flawed before the outbreak. She said that, having dealt with and overcome SARS, Chinese society was now more mature and open.
Singapore, Hong Kong and China were declared free of the disease by the WHO earlier this month, while Taiwan and Toronto, Canada, hope to be declared SARS-free as soon as early July.