The Global Health Security Index says Cook Islands is one of the nations worst-prepared for an epidemic or pandemic.
The new report recommends cross-border agreements, international aid funding, and strengthened biosecurity and border controls. It comes as the Pacific fights its biggest measles outbreak in many years, which has spread from New Zealand to Tonga and Samoa – but has thus far not affected Cook Islands.
The report is by Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, supported by several major international philanthropic trusts including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. It ranks Cook Islands as 185th of the the 195 countries assessed; in particular the country is poorly positioned to prevent and detect an epidemic or pandemic.
It also criticises the ability of the health system to respond.
Dr Matt Boyd, who has co-written an article for NZ Doctor, cautions that “no country is fully prepared, so the world is at risk overall”.
He told Cook Islands News shortfalls were to do with poor surveillance systems for human and animal diseases, systems around monitoring cross-border transfer of animals and other risks, training of border staff and testing systems for reporting outbreaks. “Immunisation is a part of prevention, but the Cook Islands does comparatively well on this,” he added.
Cook Islands’ best chance of improving is readiness was by strengthening its epidemiology workforce, he said.
In NZ Doctor, he and Otago University medical professors Michael Baker and Nick Wilson warned the risk to New Zealand and the Pacific region was increased by poor preparations of countries like Fiji and more so, Cook Islands. Professor Wilson said the New Zealand Pandemic Plans allow for working with Pacific Islands to apply exit screening (for example, on flights from New Zealand to the Cooks) and also to help with border closure if Cook Islands wants to suspend flights to protect is population.
“This is an area where good coordination between governments would be critical. And perhaps a simulation planning exercise could test this out.”
Professor Baker noted that the Security Index rated Small Island Developing States on the same measures as bigger countries. “This situation is also why collaborative arrangements are needed to ensure such capacities can be provided for these countries,” he said. “This would seem an obvious area where NZ can provide support for its associated states in the Pacific.”
He pointed to key recommendations: there should be an “urgent increase” in domestic financing for health security. This funding should be made transparent, and tied to benchmarks.