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05 Jun 2024

Strengthening Respiratory Diseases Surveillance in the Pacific

Across the Pacific Ocean, nations are coming together to safeguard public health. Recent efforts to improve surveillance of respiratory diseases and encourage regional collaboration are helping build a healthier and more resilient Pacific community.

Organised by the World Health Organization (WHO) Division of Pacific Technical Support (DPS), the recent meeting in Fiji brought together experts from across the region to discuss progress, challenges and best practice in the surveillance of influenza-like illness and severe acute respiratory illness, while also exploring strategies for preparedness and response to respiratory pathogens.

Among the attendees were University of Melbourne’s Dr Michelle Wille from the Centre for Pathogen Genomics at the Doherty Institute, and The Royal Melbourne Hospital’s Professor Patrick Reading, Mr Presa Chanthalavanh and Mr Navin Karan from the Victorian Infectious Disease Reference Laboratory (VIDRL) and the WHO Collaborating Centre for Reference and Research in Influenza at the Doherty Institute.

 (Left to right) Dr Michelle Wille, Mr Navin Karan, Mr Presa Chantalavanh and Professor Patrick Reading
(Left to right) Dr Michelle Wille, Mr Navin Karan, Mr Presa Chantalavanh and Professor Patrick Reading

Delegates with the chief guest, Dr Jemesa Tudravu, Permanent Secretary of Health, Fiji.
Delegates with the chief guest, Dr Jemesa Tudravu, Permanent Secretary of Health, Fiji.

The meeting provided valuable insights into global and regional strategies for respiratory surveillance and pandemic preparedness in the context of the challenges unique to Pacific Island Countries. Key topics included sustainable surveillance systems, leveraging respiratory surveillance data for decision-making and fostering community-based approaches for preparedness. Additionally, participants discussed the development of an integrated respiratory surveillance roadmap and reviewed the Pacific Outbreak Manual to chart a cohesive path forward in safeguarding public health in the region.

Professor Reading and Mr Karan highlighted the importance of ongoing surveillance with an overview of the circulation of respiratory viruses in the Pacific, especially influenza, RSV and SARS-CoV-2. They encouraged sample referral to VIDRL in Melbourne for variant monitoring and to support the WHO’s influenza vaccine composition advisory.

Dr Wille commended the progress in PCR diagnostics across the region.

“The incredible development and integration of PCR diagnostics across the region were very encouraging. The meeting provided exercises using foundational WHO toolkits to allow for capacity maintenance, and the development of a roadmap for expanding laboratory testing beyond basic characterisation,” said Dr Wille.

Mr Karan, Training and Capacity Manager at VIDRL at the Doherty Institute, highlighted the transformative impact of dialogue and knowledge sharing.

“It was great to see participants discuss their challenges, share success stories and learn from each other. That in itself was a highlight of the meeting for me,” said Mr Karan.

“The key outcome of the meeting has been the establishment of short- and long-term goals to strengthen surveillance and integrated testing capacity.”

National Surveillance Officer and acting Deputy Director of Public Health for the Department of Health of Tokelau, Ms Barbara Levi echoed the meeting’s impact on public health surveillance in the region.

“Attending this meeting has not only enhanced technical skills and knowledge, but also fosters a greater understanding of the complexities of public health surveillance, laboratory testing and disease management in our diverse Pacific setting. This comprehensive approach is crucial for effectively addressing respiratory diseases and improving public health outcomes and response in the Pacific region and beyond,” said Ms Levi.

Dr Nuha Mahmoud, Team Coordinator of the Pacific Health Security and Communicable Diseases in WHO DPS, reiterated the support available via the WHO to countries working towards improving their surveillance and response capabilities.

“I was glad to see the commitment shown by all attendees through their active discussion and engagement. WHO DPS stands ready to continue working closely with Pacific Island Countries and areas and development partners to provide technical support and capacity-building to strengthen surveillance and laboratory testing,” said Dr Mahmoud.

Overall, significant progress has been made in strengthening surveillance in the Pacific region since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Supported by key regional organisations, such as the WHO and Pacific Community, and with active engagement from Partner Country Ministries of Health, the region is better equipped to manage future outbreaks and threats from endemic and pandemic infectious diseases. The Doherty Institute, in partnership with regional stakeholders and through various global and regional public health programs, continues to actively engage with country Ministries of Health to provide support to strengthen capacity and capabilities across the region.

The Pacific Integrated Respiratory Disease Surveillance Meeting was organised by WHO DPS from 25 to 28 March 2024. Experts and leaders from surveillance and laboratory teams from Pacific Island Countries, including American Samoa, Commonwealth of Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI), Cook Islands, Fiji, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, New Caledonia, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tokelau, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu joined the meeting in person. Representatives of Red Cross Fiji, Pacific Community and other colleagues who were not able to attend in-person joined online.