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Media Briefing: A(H1N1) Influenza - May 8

Media Briefing: Influenza A (H1N1)
(Conducted by Dr. Jon K. Andrus, Pan American Health Organization, May 8, 2009)

Media Briefing: Influenza A (H1N1)
(Conducted by Dr. Jon K. Andrus, Pan American Health Organization, May 8, 2009)

Welcome again to those of you on the line, and thank you for taking the time to listen to today's briefing by the Pan American Health Organization on the Influenza A (H1N1) epidemic.

  • Today, I am going to focus on efforts to prepare countries, and especially their health systems, for a possible pandemic.

  • But first, I should point out that, as expected, we are seeing new confirmed cases of influenza A(H1N1) in previously uninfected countries in the PAHO region. Argentina is reporting 1 confirmed case and Brazil is confirming 4 cases. In both countries more suspect cases are under investigation. We should expect to continue to see more cases from these countries and from additional countries that have not yet reported cases.

  • For the past 4 years, PAHO and WHO have been working with their member countries to become better prepared for a possible pandemic. A key target with this work was having all countries with pandemic preparedness plans. These plans cover necessary actions to prepare themselves, especially their health systems, for each of the pandemic alert phases. Globally, we are now in phase 5.

  • Because we are in the eye of the storm, most, if not all our countries in the Americas are already implementing their pandemic emergency plans in advance of any Phase 6 announcement by WHO.

  • Required actions to the pandemic response include stepping up their surveillance and laboratory testing, preparing to handle a substantial increase in illnesses, and being able to impose public health measures that might be necessary, including actions like shutting down schools and public gatherings.

  • As part of this work, PAHO and WHO a couple of years ago developed detailed checklists to help countries assess how prepared they were for dealing with a possible pandemic and to identify potential areas of weakness and obvious gaps for an adequate response.

  • When these checklists were tested in mock-up exercises in Latin America and the Caribbean, one of the areas that appeared to need more work was protection of healthcare workers-and health facility infection control in general.

  • Now it's important that countries re-assess some of these weak areas to make sure that any gaps have been filled. For example, do health workers have the personal protection equipment they need? Have they been trained how to use the equipment properly? It's very important in a pandemic to protect health workers, because they are on the front lines protecting the health of the people and their families.

  • Strengthening infection control measures to prevent influenza transmission in healthcare settings to patients seeking care is essential. One basic, but most important measure, is more aggressive hand hygiene. We have repeated this message as one of the most important things individuals can do to protect themselves and their families. The same applies to all health care workers to prevent transmission from themselves to patients they care for. Recently, WHO released its new guidelines for more aggressive hand hygiene measures among health care workers.

  • It is very difficult, if not impossible given what we know about RNA viruses, to predict how many people in the world will come down this H1N1 infection. But, it certainly raises the question, how prepared are countries' health systems to deal with a major increase in the numbers of people falling ill? Part of the pandemic planning process has been to assess each country's health system and map out how it would handle a huge surge in new influenza cases. Health systems need to be able to utilize their full capacity in an organized way, using good triage and referral system to ensure that sick patients get the care they need.

  • Another area of pandemic planning that PAHO and its member countries have been working on is social and risk communication to ensure transparency and to build trust so that the public will accept and support public health measures, such as closing schools and restricting public gatherings, should they be necessary. We have seen that Mexico, thanks to prior preparation in this area, was able to achieve that level of trust and cooperation from its citizens.

  • Implementation of the pandemic emergency plans requires effective coordination at every level, ultimately leading to the use of the most effective strategies at the community, family, and individual levels of the health system.

  • Please refer to the PAHO and WHO websites for materials on pandemic preparedness.

(You can watch this media briefing on PAHO's Webcasts Page)


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