'Australia not immune': $20 million for regional pandemic response

Australia is not immune to potentially deadly infectious diseases pandemics, the World Health Organisation regional director has warned.

Speaking on Monday at the WHO regional Committee Meeting for the Western Pacific in Brisbane, Dr Shin Young-soo said it was not a matter of "if" but "when" the next emerging disease tested health security responses in the region.

His warning came as federal Health Minister Greg Hunt announced Australia would commit $20 million to a regional pandemic preparedness and response plan to protect both Australia and its neighbours from future outbreaks.

Mr Hunt said Australia was well-prepared to respond to pandemics within its borders, with a centralised emergency response centre and national drug inventories.

"[But] the real challenge is within the region if there is an emergence of a new wave of zika [or] you could have the equivalent of the Asian bird flu," he said.

The next threat to the region could be ebola or the rapid spread of tuberculosis, Mr Hunt said.

"Safety at home in this space generally comes from safety in the region," he said.

The funding will be used to beef up emergency response systems within countries, and to mobilise Australian medical and security personnel or enlist private contractors to work on the front lines during outbreaks.

In 2014, Aspen Medical won a $20 million Australian government contract to open a 100-bed ebola clinic in Sierra Leone, but faced opposition from critics who argued Australian medical Assistance Teams (AUSMATs) should have been deployed.

Regional director Dr Shin said the western Pacific, home to 1.9 billion people, was "the most outbreak- and disaster-prone region in the world".

"Australia is not immune to health challenges ... emerging diseases threaten us all," he said.

Dr Shin said infectious diseases don't respect borders and can spread in a matter of hours.

"No country is safe until all are safe," he said.

The funding is part of a $300 million health security initiative announced at the weekend by Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop.

Australia's health security was linked to the health security of countries in the Indo-pacific region. A major disease outbreak could have severe health and economic consequences for all countries, including Australia, potentially disrupting trade, investment and people movement, according to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

The five-year plan will also support research into improving diagnostics and treatment for multi-drug resistant TB and malaria, fast-tracking new medicine registration, and establishing a health security corps embedded within government, research and health organisations in the region.

Mr Hunt said the initiative was "a sign of international cooperation and it's also in our own national interests".

"It means we have stronger and better health outcomes within our region and it is about ensuring we have better health security for Australia, but above all else it's about doing the right things."

On Monday Mr Hunt signed Australia's first regional health security agreement with WHO, becoming the first developed nation in the region to do so. As part of the agreement, Australia will be the subject of an external review of its disaster and epidemic preparedness.

The agreement focuses on health security, universal access to healthcare, medical regulations and health system co-operation to respond to disaster and epidemics.

This story 'Australia not immune': $20 million for regional pandemic response first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.