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Japan should step up in Asia's infectious disease fight

World's fastest growing region needs stronger collaboration, experts say

Infectious disease experts discuss a plan to create a new clinical testing center in Asia during a conference in Naha, Okinawa Prefecture, on March 4.

NAHA, Japan -- As people and goods move across borders at an ever-accelerating pace, tuberculosis, malaria and other infectious diseases are beginning to pose a particular threat to Asia, experts and policymakers reaffirmed this week during an international conference.

A statement issued on Saturday at the end of the Nikkei Asian Conference on Communicable Diseases stresses the importance of stepping up Japan's public-private efforts to package diagnostic products and remedies as well as containment and preventative measures.

The two-day conference in the capital of Okinawa Prefecture drew some 120 participants from governments, international organizations, academia and corporations. Most panelists came from Japan, while others represented countries like China, India, Thailand, the Philippines and Indonesia.

As Asia has a mix of vibrant trade and dense, mobile populations, it must be united in readying countermeasures. Without teamwork, infectious diseases could weigh on the world's fastest-growing and most dynamic region, speakers at the conference said.

"Fights against infectious diseases require a wide Asian network," Shigeru Omi, the conference chairman and a World Health Organization veteran, said. "With diverse researchers and technologies, our countermeasures will be stronger."

One proposal in the statement calls on experts to set up a new consortium that would establish a clinical testing center in Asia. Japan has many seeds that could grow into diagnostic kits and vaccines. But the country lacks clinical testing wherewithal in infectious diseases. Stronger partnerships with other Asian countries is essential, some speakers at the conference said.

New consortium

Public officials from Indonesia and Thailand explained challenges on eliminating malaria on March 3.

This year's conference -- the annual gathering has been held since 2014 -- was attended by a new Japanese consortium established to tackle mosquito-borne malaria, one of the "big three" diseases, along with tuberculosis and HIV. The public-private partnership intends to provide a package of testing kits, vector control and vaccinations to Asia.

According to WHO, there were over 200 million malaria cases -- and more than 400,000 deaths -- around the world in 2015. Africa accounts for around 90% of all malaria cases. Southeast Asia is hit with about 10% of all cases.

Between 2000 and 2015, new cases of malaria fell by 37%, and mortality rates fell by 60% globally. Experts now say the fight against the mosquito-borne disease has moved to the elimination phase from the control phase.

During a subcommittee meeting, a Thai official said his country is also showing good progress toward eliminating malaria. Last year, it saw 18,000 cases, a 30% reduction from 2015. Three decades ago, Thailand was coming down with 100,000 cases a year. The country has set 2024 as the target year during which it will become free of malaria.

But even as the country has a lot to celebrate, there is a looming threat in the Mekong region: Drugs widely used to treat malaria are rapidly losing their effectiveness. In addition, Thailand shares a border with Myanmar, where people have less access to malaria control.

Many migrants in Thailand come from Myanmar.

"In order to eliminate malaria, we cannot leave our neighbors behind," said Jeeraphat Sirichaisinthop, a senior expert on disease control from Thailand's public health ministry. "We need stronger cross-border measures and collaboration. It cannot be solved by one country."

Kiyoshi Kita, a dean and professor of Nagasaki University's School of Tropical Medicine and Global Health, said Japan already has strong weapons to tackle malaria, from mosquito repellents, advanced diagnostic instruments and potential vaccines. "We must bring all our technology and knowledge together," Kita said. "We must systematically tackle the challenges."

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