Bhutan One Health secretariat office inaugurated yesterday

Younten Tshedup 

Almost 14 years after Bhutan joined the global One Health effort to avert zoonotic disease outbreaks, the Bhutan One Health secretariat office was inaugurated at the Royal Centre for Disease Control (RCDC) in Thimphu yesterday.

One Health is an approach to prevent possible outbreaks of novel infectious diseases like Covid-19, especially those with zoonotic origin, disease transmitted from animals to humans, through a multi-disciplinary collaboration.

The secretariat is expected to strengthen and institutionalise the One Health system in the country. Four members from the health and agriculture ministries and the Khesar Gyalpo University of Medical Sciences of Bhutan will man the office.

Today, more than 60 percent of the known human pathogens originate from animals and about 75 percent of emerging infectious diseases are zoonotic in nature.

The chairperson of the inter-ministerial committee of One Health (IMCOH), agriculture ministry’s secretary, Rinzin Dorji, said that One Health approach was framed and considered to be one of the best models towards prevention and control of emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases.

He said that globally, the emergence and re-emergence of zoonoses such as human immunodeficiency virus, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), Ebola, dengue haemorrhagic fever, and the highly pathogenic avian influenza had caused substantial morbidity and mortality to the human and animal population.

Steps to formally recognise One Health in Bhutan started with the conduct of the first national One Health symposium in November 2013 followed by the first south Asian regional One Health symposium in December 2013.

The Bhutan One Health strategic plan was developed and endorsed by the Cabinet in November 2016.

The chairperson said that through the excellent multi-disciplinary collaborations over the past years, Bhutan has successfully contained 14 outbreaks of the highly pathogenic avian influenza and achieved zero human deaths due to rabies since 2017.

Vice chairperson of IMCOH and health secretary, Dr Ugen Dophu said that with the formation of the secretariat, data and key information from all the stakeholders – health, forest and livestock – would be now managed and disseminated through the secretariat.

Sharing an experience from 2007, Dr Ugen Dophu said that a typhoid outbreak in Bumthang became severe with more than 400 cases in a week. It was through the help of agriculture ministry’s officials that the cause of the typhoid infection was discovered.

“Health facilities still receive numerous cases of illnesses, like rabies, that originate from animals. If the infections can be controlled within the animals themselves, it would not infect people and the expenditure in the health sector will automatically come down.”

Health officials said that the One Health approach addresses the shared health threats at the human-animal-environmental interface.

Citing the example of the health ministry’s technical advisory group (TAG), Health Minister Dechen Wangmo said that the TAG members consisted of leading experts in the field of epidemiology from various organisations (human and animal health including forest departments).

Lyonpo said that while countries in the region continue to seek consultant support in handling the pandemic, Bhutan have managed with an all-Bhutanese-team to contain the pandemic. Today, the TAG provides evidence-based support to the ministry and government to come up with new containment and preventive protocols.

Lyonpo said that the pandemic had made everyone realise how important it was to come together and work as a team. “There are challenges given our limited pool of expertise and the human capital. The government is committed to improving the human capital in the country.”

Along with the secretariat office, the Bhutan One Health strategic plan and a website were also launched as a part of the Global One Health Day.