Poor health systems in Asia cause for Ebola alarm

Poor health systems in Asia cause for Ebola alarm

The longer the Ebola outbreak rages in West Africa, the greater chance a traveler infected with the virus touches down in an Asian city.

How quickly any case is detected, and the measures taken once it is, will determine whether the virus takes hold in a region where billions live in poverty and public health systems are often very weak.

Governments are ramping up response plans, stepping up surveillance at airports and considering quarantine measures.

Still, health experts in the region's less developed countries fear any outbreak would be deadly and hard to contain.

"This is a non-treatable disease with a very high mortality rate. And even a country like the United States has not been able to completely prevent it," said Yatin Mehta, a critical care specialist at the Medanta Medicity hospital near New Delhi.

"The government is trying. They are preparing and they are training, but our record of disaster management has been very poor in the past."

More than 10,000 people have been infected with Ebola and nearly half of them have died, according to the World Health Organization.

The Ebola epidemic in West Africa is the largest ever outbreak of the disease with a rapidly rising death toll in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. There have also been cases in three other West African countries, Spain and the United States.

Early symptoms of Ebola include fever, headache, body aches, cough, stomach pain, vomiting, and diarrhea, and patients aren't contagious until those begin.

The virus requires close contact with body fluids to spread so health care workers and family members caring for loved ones are most at risk.

Asia, home to 60 per cent of the world's population, scores higher than West Africa on most development indexes and includes emerging or developed countries like Singapore, Malaysia, South Korea and Japan.

But countries like India, China, the Philippines and Indonesia have vast numbers of poor, many of whom live in crowded slums, and underfunded health systems.

Sujatha Rao, a former Indian health secretary, said India's health system kicked into overdrive when confronted with a health crisis, as was seen during the 2009 H1N1 pandemic. "In India we're very good at crisis management, but we are hopeless at routine care," Rao said.

Asked whether the country was prepared for Ebola, she added: "We are not ready. But that said, there is only so much preparation that any country can do."

The Philippine government estimates there are up to 1,700 Filipino workers in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, plus more than 100 peacekeeping troops in Liberia.

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