Senior experts from Southeast Asian nations met in Cambodia on Monday to discuss preparations for major pandemics that can cause huge losses of life and disruption to the region.
More than 100 high-level participants from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), UN agencies and international bodies, including the World Health Organisation, attended the five-day regional event, the first of its kind.
The exercise aims to improve the capabilities of ASEAN member states, both individually and collectively, to prepare for and respond to a severe pandemic with potentially devastating effects on the region, according to officials.
"We are here today because we all realise that the occurrence of a devastating pandemic is not science fiction," said Surin Pitsuwan, ASEAN's secretary general, as he opened the exercise funded by the US agency for International Development.
"We should continue to prepare for worst-case scenarios in order to mitigate massive loss of lives and societal disruption in the event of a severe pandemic or any disaster," he said.
Southeast Asia was badly hit by viral outbreaks of SARS in 2003 and a deadly human strain of bird flu in 2004.
It was also hit by the recent swine flu pandemic, which was declared over by the World Health Organisation last week, more than a year after the virus spread around the world sparking panic and killing thousands.