The Value of CDC’s Work in ThailandPosted on by
When I became country director in 2013 the relationships between Thailand’s public health officials and CDC were already strong and well established.
That wasn’t surprising. CDC’s collaboration with the Ministry of Public Health, after all, began 30 years ago and the partnership has been prospering – and expanding – ever since. And there is a strong history between the two countries – this year Thailand and the US are celebrating 180 years of Friendship.
The reasons are well established too. And numerous.
Last summer, while visiting family, I was asked by a U.S. border guard, “Why is America working abroad for public health?” I was happy to get this question, as it was an opportunity to deepen understanding for why CDC works abroad – to protect Americans from health threats, to build important relationships with strategic partners, and to learn lessons that can be expanded to other parts of the world.
All of it is done while improving people’s health. I think the American people should be proud of CDC’s history and investment in Thailand.
The importance to the U.S. of the Asia-Pacific region, where nearly half of the world’s population resides, makes it vital to maintain strong and positive relationships with key partners like the Kingdom of Thailand. The work CDC does in Thailand not only helps to strengthen health security in the region, but helps maintain key relations with an important country that is seen as a leader in the region.
Indeed, those realities and the region’s growing prominence have been highlighted in unmistakable ways, including a joint visit last June by HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and CDC Director Tom Frieden. The visit underscored the importance of CDC’s work with Thailand, and in strategic middle-income countries in general. (The World Bank defines a “middle-income country” as having a gross national income per person, or GNI, between $1,036 and $12,615 a year. At $5,210, Thailand’s GNI for 2012 was squarely in the middle.)
Today Thailand is home to one of the largest field operations in CDC’s global network with 17 U.S. staff and 177 locally employed staff working alongside our counterparts at the Ministry of Public Health to build capacity; provide technical assistance; detect, respond to, and stop diseases; strengthen laboratory and other public health systems; and work jointly on researching important health concerns that have global implications.
In my relatively short tenure as country director I’ve seen the many benefits of this collaboration and history. I’ve also seen how the lessons learned here and the techniques that have been refined in Thailand are being shared with other countries in the region, and beyond. There are clear examples of this in areas such as outbreak response and developing programs to combat HIV/AIDS. These efforts, in fact, are part of the reason Thailand is emerging as a regional asset and leader in public health.
Our work here fits well with CDC’s emphasis on global health security, an idea based in the knowledge that identifying, containing and, if possible, eliminating public health threats where they originate protects Americans at home and abroad in an age of easy global travel and increasing affluence in many countries in the region.
I am proud to serve with Americans and Thais who are on the front lines. The office supports activities in many categories and disciplines, including TB, influenza, strengthening laboratories, emerging infectious diseases, malaria, HIV/AIDS, and noncommunicable diseases. CDC staff in Thailand also work on improving the health of immigrants and refugees as well as such clinically difficult challenges such as identifying and controlling the way disease moves from animals to humans.
When the Ministry of Public Health asked for assistance to address the growing concerns of noncommunicable diseases impacting Thailand, we were able to respond by leveraging CDC’s technical expertise in developing better data, and evaluating prevention strategies.
This year, for example, I participated in an event highlighting the World Health Organization’s new report on road safety. I learned that hundreds of thousands of U.S. tourists visit Thailand every year and that Thailand has one of the highest road fatality rates in the world. This event highlighted the problem in Thailand and the region and there was excellent discussion about how Thailand might address this issue, including improving data collection, the use of seat belts, helmets, and preventing drunk driving. Our collaboration in this area is a great example of bringing U.S. technical expertise to other countries, focusing on areas that can have real, measurable impact.
Another major endeavor is Thailand’s participation in Global Disease Detection (GDD), an ambitious effort involving the WHO as well as other nations to refine and perfect systems for uncovering disease outbreaks before they spiral out of control.
CDC, along with WHO and Thai authorities, for example, have confirmed human cases of the H1N1 (commonly known as “swine flu”) and the H5N1 (commonly known as the “bird flu”) strains of influenza in Thailand. In this age of easy global travel that’s good news for the United States too. It also strengthens Thailand’s ability to detect and defeat diseases before they can expand, literally take flight, and possibly enter the U.S.
Another initiative is examining ways to enhance medical exams for U.S.-bound refugees. I was fortunate to join Dr. Frieden and Secretary Sebelius earlier this year when they visited the Mae La shelter on the Thailand border with Burma. We witnessed how CDC’s assistance is helping U.S.-bound refugees become medically eligible to enter the U.S. I was able to appreciate that CDC is doing great things there that will not only make a difference to the people who live in the camps, but also better protect the health of Americans as we are actively working to make sure that any refugee that is U.S.-bound is medically cleared to live in the U.S. The hard-working camp staff is impressive and a model of dedication.
Senior policymakers in the United States have long understood the power and benefit of public health diplomacy. In my mind there’s no better example today of that truth than Thailand and the CDC’s work here.
We are collaborating to improve the health of both our populations which makes it easier to collaborate in other areas. Thailand and other nations in the Mekong Region and across Asia have grown in strategic importance, which means building partnerships to improve public health is now an important focus for reasons that expand beyond health.
That’s not simply CDC’s view.
President Obama has repeatedly made the emphasis clear, including during a visit to Japan in 2010 when he declared the importance of the region where Thailand is playing an important leadership role.
“I want every American to know that we have a stake in the future of this region, because what happens here has a direct effect on our lives at home,” he said. “The fortunes of America and the Asia Pacific have become more closely linked than ever before.”
Learn more about CDC’s work in Thailand by visiting the CDC-Thailand website.