Learning from the influenza pandemic

“The emergence of a new strain of influenza, which was able to spread around the globe in a matter of a few weeks, clearly highlights our joint vulnerability and the need for a collective, coordinated response.” This was the main message presented by Ms Zsuzsanna Jakab, WHO Regional Director for Europe, to a meeting of health ministers from European Union (EU) countries held in Brussels, Belgium on 5 July.

Ms Jakab credited the framework provided by the revised International Health Regulations (IHR) and the national IHR focal points for the success of collective pandemic preparedness across the WHO European Region. She also highlighted the importance of asking whether the preparedness efforts were useful or the response committed WHO Member States to a defined course of action that hampered rapid adaptation throughout the first wave of the pandemic.

Lessons from the past

Ms Jakab identified three main lessons learnt from the pandemic; these were the needs:

  • to improve coordination between key players and spell out their roles more clearly;
  • to be better prepared for multiple scenarios; and
  • to strengthen communication efforts.
In particular, the following roles needed clarification: the public health role of the private sector (including industry and private health care providers) and the roles of the general public, the mass media (including web-based and social media), governments and parliaments, and international organizations such as WHO.

Better preparedness for multiple scenarios required not only preparing for the worst but also adapting quickly to better outcomes. Flexibility of response to a health crisis should be embedded in preparedness plans.

Communication efforts, including the use of social media networks, should rapidly inform the public of possible difficulties but also prepare people for changes in assessments of risk. Further, they should promote public acceptance of measures taken, which might include vaccination.

Preparedness for the future

WHO/Europe has started a systematic review of both national influenza pandemic plans and WHO’s technical guidance. It is being completed with participation from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control and WHO headquarters. Seven WHO/Europe Member States are taking part in the study.

Within the IHR framework, WHO/Europe continues to support Member States’ assessments of and preparedness for public health emergencies through renewed partnership with all relevant stakeholders.