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Australia deepens its ties to World Health Organisation

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A new era in relations between Australia and the World Health Organisation (WHO) is being ushered in with an agreement that will further deepen Australia’s involvement in the health of its region.

Signed last week at a WHO regional meeting in Brisbane, the agreement puts in place Australia’s first country cooperation strategy with the WHO. The plan is also the first of its type signed with a high-income country in the Western Pacific region.

It’s designed to leverage Australia’s expertise in healthcare to the benefit of less well developed countries in the region, while at the same time strengthening Australia’s own health security.

Health Minister Greg Hunt said the new partnership puts Australia at the forefront of international best practice in health policy.

“This strategy strengthens our systems to guard against emerging diseases at home and abroad, boosts our public health capacities and improves our already robust regulations to ensure we have safe and effective medicines and treatments,” he said.

The agreement outlines three strategic priorities:

  • Improving health security, with a focus on infectious diseases and emerging disease outbreaks;
  • Exchanging expertise and information in health systems policy;
  • Strengthening health regulations across the region.

Also at the Brisbane meeting of the WHO Regional Committee for the Western Pacific, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop launched a $300 million Indo-Pacific Health Security Initiative.

“In an interconnected world, diseases such as Ebola, MERS and the Zika Virus do not respect borders. A major epidemic could potentially disrupt tourism, trade, investment and people movement, setting back regional economic growth and development,” Minister Bishop said.

The $300 million will go to supporting efforts to prevent and contain disease outbreaks that could impact significantly on national, regional and global economies. The initial focus will be on drug-resistant tuberculosis and malaria in the Indo-Pacific region. These efforts will be led by the newly formed Indo-Pacific Centre for Health Security, a unit within the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

As part of the fight against pandemics in the region, Greg Hunt has also announced that hospitals across the country will open their doors to a WHO-led team of auditors, who will look at local policies and plans for public health emergencies and antimicrobial resistance.

“I’m confident that our investments in pandemic preparedness, the national medical stockpile, biosecurity and vaccination supported by our people, systems and processes, will prove worthy,” he commented.

“We know there are gaps in our defences against global pandemics or potential epidemics, and antimicrobial resistance, and we need more, and better research to plug those gaps.”

Mr Hunt said the Pacific region is a known hotspot for emerging disease and increased resistance to conventional tuberculosis and malaria treatments.

“We are not alone in facing these health threats which have potentially disastrous social and economic impacts. While Australia recognises its privileged position in the world, we are not complacent about the risk that pandemics and other health threats pose to us.”

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