Diverse Southeast Asia found with "health crisis': journal

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Southeast Asia is facing a rising tide of infectious and chronic diseases, researchers have warned.

A six study series published in The Lancet on Tuesday, noted that implementing controls would be difficult due to variations in the region's economic and health systems.

Chronic illnesses such as cancer, heart disease and stroke caused 2.6 million deaths (or 60 percent of all fatalities) in 2005. The figures could surge to 4.2 million by 2030, warned one paper in the series.

Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam were among the countries surveyed by the journal, which called for further action against the emerging problems.

"Emerging infectious diseases have exacted heavy public health and economic tolls. Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) rapidly decimated the region's tourist industry," the paper said. "Influenza A H5N1 has had a profound effect on the poultry industry."

Shifting landscape

It said that the reasons for emerging infectious diseases have been complicated by rapid changes in the region's landscape. These changes include population growth and movement, urbanization, changes in food production, agriculture and land use, water and sanitation, and the effect of health systems against emerging drug-resistant illnesses.

"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 authors of the findings.

Along with the emerging infectious diseases, Southeast Asia also faces an epidemic of chronic non-communicable diseases, stemming from environmental factors that promote tobacco use, unhealthy diet, and inadequate physical activity. Disadvantaged populations are the hardest hit, researchers found.

Short on manpower, high on disaster

The authors of the study advised that health-care systems need to be redesigned to ensure more careful surveillance of key modifiable risk factors. They also called for the involvement of all branches of government and all sectors of society in establishing environments that are conducive to healthy living.

Although there is no shortage of health workers in the region overall, when analyzed separately, five low-income countries, (including Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam), suffer from deficits.

The looming threat of natural disasters has only added fuel to the fire, researchers noted.

The El Niño and La Niña phenomena were found to have intensified the annual variation of hot and wet climate, leading to droughts, floods, and the occurrence of infectious diseases such as malaria and cholera.

Countries in the northern part of the region such as the Philippines and Vietnam are badly affected by seasonal typhoons that have increased in intensity over time, the researchers noted.

Sliding child mortality

The researchers also highlighted uneven progress in reducing maternal and child deaths in the region.

Infant and under-5 mortality in Thailand and Vietnam have declined substantially to below 15 per 1000 live births during the past two decades; meanwhile, the Philippines and Indonesia have seen a leveling off in rates to between 30 and 50 per 1000 live births.

Myanmar, Cambodia, and Laos still had mortality levels of 50-70 per 1000 live births in 2008, which are similar to the rates of their neighbors from more than two decades ago, and rank among the highest in Asia.

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