Southeast Asia’s 600 million people are facing a raft of new health challenges as the disaster-prone region undergoes some of the world’s fastest social change, medical papers published this week said.
“A health crisis is transpiring right before our eyes,” warned a paper in the series, published by The Lancet journal, which said chronic diseases such as cancer now account for 60 percent of deaths in the region.
It was also dubbed a “hotspot” for emerging and difficult-to-control infectious diseases, with outbreaks in avian flu fuelling fears about the possibility of new pandemics spreading from Southeast Asia.
“The pace of demographic change in the region is one of the fastest worldwide, whether it is due to population ageing, fertility decline, or rural to urban migration,” said the papers.
“As elsewhere, the disease burden continues to shift from infectious to chronic diseases, yet increased urban population density has created concerns about emerging infectious diseases.”
The reports also point to Southeast Asia being one of the world’s most disaster-prone regions, with the environment responsible for up to a quarter of all deaths in an area regularly hit by monsoons and typhoons.
Weather phenomena such as El Nino also “intensify the annual variation of the hot and wet climate, leading to droughts, floods and the occurrence of infectious diseases such as malaria and cholera,” said one of the papers.
“Climate change could exacerbate the spread of emerging infectious diseases in the region, especially vector-borne diseases linked to rises in temperature and rainfall,” such as dengue, it added.
Deforestation and other human encroachment on wildlife habitats were said to heighten the potential for germs to cross species barriers, as they increase interactions between wildlife, humans and livestock.
Controlling these diseases is difficult given the variety of economies and health systems across the nations analysed: Laos, Indonesia, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Myanmar, Singapore, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam.
City state Singapore, for example, has a gross domestic product per head of $37,500, while in largely rural Laos the equivalent figure is $890.
Political tensions within and between countries “have the potential to further hinder control” of emerging infections, said the papers, which called for improved surveillance of these health threats across the region.
They also called for urgent action to tackle Southeast Asia’s “epidemic of non-communicable disease”, including heart disease, stemming from environmental factors promoting tobacco use, unhealthy diet and inadequate physical activity.
“Unless nations recognise the problem and take appropriate action, premature death and disability will continue, hindering development where development is needed most.”