Global cooperation key in beating infectious diseases: PM

SINGAPORE - Amid jitters over a new strain of bird flu, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said at the opening of a regional World Health Summit that strengthening international cooperation is an important way to combat such infectious diseases.

These diseases, such as the latest H7N9 virus, which has so far claimed seven lives in China, do not respect geographical boundaries and "don't need passports", he added on Monday.

Information sharing, coordinated cross-border infection controls and early warning surveillance systems remain critical to combating emerging infectious diseases like H7N9, which experts fear can mutate into a form easily transmissible between humans.

"We must therefore continue to strengthen our links with the World Health Organisation and other public health agencies as a vanguard against future pandemics," PM Lee told delegates at the event at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel.

International platforms such as the United Nations, ASEAN and Apec are useful for countries to share health-care experiences and professional expertise.

But, 10 years after the "dark episode" of Sars (severe acute respiratory syndrome), he also noted that Singapore and other Asian countries have improved their capabilities to deal with infectious diseases. A new hospital to cope with future outbreaks will open here by 2018, for instance.

Emerging infectious diseases are among four health challenges nations face, PM Lee told his international audience of about 900, which comprised academics, doctors and public health officials. The others are non-communicable diseases (NCDs), ageing and health-care financing.

Over 60 per cent of deaths annually are due to NCDs and the leading risks are high blood pressure, physical inactivity and obesity. He said Singapore has adopted a community-based approach to promote healthy living.

To gear up for a rapidly-ageing population, more nursing homes are being built and active ageing programmes introduced.

Finally, on affordability, he said the health-care financing system here is being reviewed.

The Government will take on a larger share of health-care costs, make insurance play a bigger role and allow more flexibility in using funds from compulsory savings scheme Medisave. Out-of-pocket costs will remain affordable, he pledged, and needy Singaporeans will get additional help.

"We will also study how the state can provide more targeted financial support, for example in chronic disease management, preventive care or in long-term care."

The three-day event, with delegates from 46 countries, is the first World Health Summit in Asia. The spectre of H7N9 was also raised in the opening press conference.

But Professor David Heymann, chairman of the United Kingdom's Health Protection Agency and an infectious disease epidemiology specialist, said it is hard to predict how this new strain will progress, since there is no historical data for researchers to make comparisons.

"What we do know is that every virus which is circulating in humans is a risk, and so we must treat it as a risk and do regular assessments," he said.

On Tuesday, Health Minister Gan Kim Yong will take part in an Asian Ministers Panel Discussion.

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