Written by Jane Halton, the inaugural Chair of the APEC Health Working Group. Ms Halton is the Secretary for the Australian Department of Health and Ageing.

Good health policy is also good economic policy.

The foundation of any economy is its people. Illness or disability affects the quality of life of individual workers and their families, and directly affects their ability to contribute to the economy.

Virulent diseases such as HIV/AIDS, an influenza pandemic, natural disasters or a food crisis can cripple local, national and regional economies.

APEC has recognized that the 2.6 billion people in the Asia-Pacific community are vulnerable to these health threats, and that in an age of globalization and economic integration, these threats cannot be repelled by national borders or natural barriers.

International cooperation on these and other pressing health issues is imperative. Our response must be structured and engage all areas of the economy, while also being measured to minimize disruption to international travel and trade.

To achieve this, the meeting of APEC Health Ministers in Sydney in June 2007 agreed to set up an ongoing Health Working Group (to replace the former ad hoc Health Taskforce), with the aim of reducing the impact of health-related threats to economies, trade and security.

The Sydney meeting acknowledged that the threat of a pandemic arising from the H5N1 strand of avian influenza remained real.

At the first meeting of the Health Working Group in Peru, members set priorities for projects considered under their domain. Projects would i) enhance preparedness for and response to public health threats, including avian and human pandemic influenza and vector borne diseases; ii) fight against HIV/AIDS in the APEC region; and iii) improve health outcomes through advances in health information technology.

In his opening remarks to the Lima meeting, Peru's Minister for Health, Hernán Garrido-Lecca, called on APEC nations to work together to tackle natural disasters which he said were more likely in view of climate change.

Noting that even developed nations have experienced major problems after natural disasters, he said "we can learn a lot from each other." Moreover, in an era of globalization, APEC member economies could no longer afford to turn a blind eye to health-related problems in other economies, he said.

All economies in APEC would be affected if a health crisis occurs in another economy. Importantly, developed economies cannot afford to ignore their health security, while concentrating on economic growth, because the two go hand-in-hand.

For this reason, the Health Working Group's emphasis is to ensure that all of the APEC economies fully participate in health security planning.

Our efforts will initially focus on assisting developing economies that are lacking capacity in their response to health emergencies. The response of these economies will be critical in determining the impact on the whole of APEC.

To enhance APEC health communications, the United States is running a project to improve communication, coordination, and collaboration among sectors of the APEC economies, such as public health, trade, and communications, in relation to a possible health crisis. A major component of the project is improving participation in advanced network-supported activities and exploring new forms of real-time communication.

APEC Training for Program Managers on Tuberculosis /HIV is also underway. This project, managed by Thailand, will build capacity by training future managers of tuberculosis and HIV programs.

As chair of the HWG, I will be working to promote existing partnerships and build new ones, with other APEC groups, as well as with international organizations.

We have been fortunate to have Dr David Nabarro, UN System Senior Coordinator for Avian and Human Influenza present at the 2007 Health Ministers Meeting and the first HWG meeting. The HWG will be working with UNSIC and other international bodies to ensure our work is complementary and not duplicative.

The potential benefits of the Health Working Group's work are enormous. Our region cannot secure greater and more widespread wealth, without also securing the health of its people.