Typhoon Ompong in the Philippines and a case of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome in the Republic of Korea may seem like two unrelated events thousands of kilometres apart, but they offer the same lesson. They both highlight the importance of preparedness for outbreaks and emergencies.
On 8 September, a case of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) was confirmed in the Republic of Korea: a 61-year-old Korean man who recently travelled to Kuwait. For many, the case brought back nightmares of the 2015 outbreak in the Republic of Korea that killed 36 people and cost the country an estimated US$ 2 billion.
But this time was different.
When the patient reported his symptoms and travel history to a doctor upon arriving home, MERS was immediately suspected. Measures were put in place before the patient arrived at the hospital to minimize contact with others. As soon as MERS was confirmed, the Government shared the information with WHO, other countries and the public. The national public health emergency operations centre kicked into action to coordinate the response.
As a result, further spread of the disease within the Republic of Korea appears to have been prevented. No additional cases have been detected, but the country remains on guard.
One week after the MERS case, Typhoon Ompong tore a path of destruction across the northern Philippines. Known internationally as Mangkhut, the typhoon made landfall on 15 September with winds topping 250 km/h and caused storm surges, flash floods and landslides.
The typhoon brought back memories of one of the strongest tropical cyclones ever recorded that also struck Philippines: Super Typhoon Yolanda. Known internationally as Haiyan, the storm ripped through the central Philippines in 2013, killing 6300 people and injuring 28 000 more. Damages totalled more than US$ 2 billion, including more than 2000 health facilities that were damaged or destroyed.
Again, better preparedness facilitated the response in the Philippines.
The Department of Health acted swiftly to Typhoon Ompong, activating emergency disease surveillance and immediately deploying staff, medicines and supplies to the region. While 156 health facilities sustained damage in the storm, they all remain operational, providing life-saving care when needed most. Generators have kept vaccine refrigerators running during power outages, so that children continue to receive the protection of immunization. With support from the World Health Organization (WHO), the Department of Health had 17 national emergency medical teams trained and ready to be deployed when the typhoon hit.
In both of these emergencies, luck also played a part.
In 2015, MERS was largely unknown and unexpected outside of the Middle East. Now doctors in the Republic of Korea are much more alert to the threat than they were then. This time — unlike in 2015 — the initial MERS patient took quick action that prevented the disease from spreading. Likewise, the path of the latest storm in the Philippines was far north, in a less populated area that is somewhat sheltered by mountains.
In any outbreak or emergency, some factors will always be beyond human control and unique to the event. What is certain, however, is that careful preparedness and rapid response can limit loss of life, societal disruption and economic losses. WHO’s new investment case shows that each dollar invested in preparedness returns more than eight dollars in savings when outbreaks or disasters strike.
Preparedness matters even more in the Western Pacific Region, which is an epicentre of disasters and outbreaks globally.
For years, the Asia Pacific Strategy for Emerging Diseases and Public Health Emergencies has guided countries on strengthening preparedness. The strategy brings together lessons learnt over more than a decade of investment in health security to help helps countries to build health systems that are resilient and ready to respond to any hazard that threatens health.
WHO has also issued the Western Pacific Regional Framework for Action for Disaster Risk Management for Health to help countries minimize the health consequences of disasters.
Both strategies help countries better protect people during outbreaks and emergencies.
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