SEAOHUN Executive Director Dr. Vipat Kuruchittham: We Must Be United to Stop Future Pandemics

September 13, 2021

By Juthamanee Areeya

STOP Spillover is working with regional partners, including the Africa One Health University Network, icddr,b, the Southeast Asia One Health University Network (SEAOHUN), and others to promote national commitment to stopping outbreaks and pandemics, to empower local expertise, and to facilitate South-South collaboration.

This week, I sat down with Dr. Vipat Kuruchittham to discuss how STOP Spillover fits into the organization’s mission and what he sees as the biggest challenges to stopping future spillovers, outbreaks, and pandemics.

Vipat is the executive director of SEAOHUN, a regional One Health network that is working to develop a resilient and competent One Health workforce by leveraging education, research, and training. Before leading the network, he worked to improve population health and higher education at U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, United Nations Development Programme, Malaria Consortium, Southeast Asian Ministers of Education Organization Regional Center for Higher Education, and Chulalongkorn University. He holds a Ph.D. in Health Systems Engineering with a minor in public health and Master of Science in Industrial Engineering in Decision Science and Operations Research from the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

Juthamanee: Can you tell us about SEAOHUN and how it started?

Vipat: Southeast Asia One Health University Network (SEAOHUN), which was established in late 2011 with support from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), is the regional network of 92 universities in 8 Southeast Asian countries: Cambodia, Lao PDR, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam.

SEAOHUN and its country networks work together to develop a resilient and competent One Health workforce to effectively prevent, detect, and respond to infectious disease threats by leveraging education, research, and training excellence provided by member universities.

SEAOHUN coordinates and manages the USAID One Health Workforce–Next Generation (OHW-NG) project, STOP Spillover’s work in Southeast Asia, and Chevron Strengthening One Health Education in Southeast Asia. SEAOHUN also advocates for the role of universities to build the capacity of professionals across sectors to solve complex One Health issues, conduct research for evidence-based decision making, and assist governments with public health surge capacity.

Juthamanee: SEAOHUN recently launched STOP Spillover. How will this project fit into SEAOHUN’s work and why is it so important?

Vipat: STOP Spillover, which aims to strengthen country capacity to understand and address the threats posed by zoonotic viral diseases and reduce the risk of viral spillover and spread, fits squarely with SEAOHUN's mission to develop a resilient and competent One Health workforce to be able to effectively prevent, detect, and respond to infectious disease threats.

Human resources are essential for ensuring sustainable and effective health security systems - and STOP Spillover’s work will help us make sure our workforce has the resources and capacity it needs to monitor risks of future spillovers, implement interventions to reduce the risk, and mitigate amplification and spread of priority zoonotic diseases in human populations.

While the STOP Spillover project currently covers only a couple of countries in Southeast Asia, SEAOHUN will facilitate the sharing of resources and lessons learned from its work on this consortium to the other SEAOHUN member countries.

Juthamanee: What do you think are the biggest challenges to preventing viral spillover in Southeast Asia?

Vipat: The two biggest challenges are public health literacy and the social responsibility of citizens.

To prevent viral spillover, public health literacy and an understanding of the interdependencies between humans and animals in a shared environment, known as One Health, is crucial. With COVID-19, we have witnessed the global impact of a virus whose origin is suspected to be from a wet market selling wildlife meat for human consumption. For this reason, addressing wildlife trade in meat for consumption cannot be ignored if we are to lessen the spillover of diseases originating from wildlife and prevent future pandemics. The public must be educated about such dangerous actions in our shared environment that could potentially ripple outwards and have a devastating global impact.

Additionally, the stakes are high in outbreaks. A careless action by a single individual can help fuel exponential infection rates, potentially leading to soaring caseloads and more deaths. A sense of social responsibility is hugely important. If we can nurture people’s sense of social responsibility, asking them to follow government guidelines can become less daunting as long as they have access to basic necessities, such as food and face masks, needed to weather the storm. Increased social responsibility and trust make infection prevention and control during a pandemic more effective.

Juthamanee: What lessons can we learn from the COVID-19 pandemic that can be applied to preventing future spillovers?

Vipat: The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated how quickly a localized infectious disease can spread and impact lives across a globalized world. Hence, no country should be left behind and all countries must join hands to invest in preparedness to strengthen global health security systems. Our world is as strong as the weakest country, and a disease threat anywhere is a disease threat everywhere.

Diseases have no borders and we must be united to stop future pandemics.

Juthamanee: What’s something not a lot of people know about you?

Vipat: While I have been working in public health since 1999, all my degrees are from Engineering schools–BEng in Computer, MEng in Engineering Management, MSIE in Decision Science and Operations Research, and a Ph.D. in Health Systems Engineering. I am passionate about applying information technology to improve public health surveillance systems and building the capacity of future health professionals to make our world safer and healthier.

Juthamanee: What is your favorite food?

Vipat: I am not big on food. As long as it is not beef and not spicy, I pretty much have them all. The more important thing is with whom I am dining. Good company can make even lousy food enjoyable.

Juthamanee: What advice would you give to leaders around the world who want to prevent the next pandemic before it starts?

Vipat: You must invest in preparedness, and especially in human resources and in promoting One Health. Let’s all collaborate—ministries, universities, inter-governmental and non-governmental organizations, and the private sector—to develop our One Health workforce, generate evidence-based information for policymakers, and maintain public health surge capacity.

To learn more about SEAOHUN visit www.seaohun.org.

Dr. Vipat Kuruchittham at a fundraiser

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