Information crucial to properly prepare for a pandemic

A pandemic flu occurring is not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when.

Fortunately, Ontario has been leading the discussion on many aspects of pandemic preparedness, according to Dr. Michael Osterholm and a group of experts that met in Toronto earlier this week for the Pandemic Planning Forum at the Ontario Hospital Association Health Achieve 2006 conference.

“Maybe SARS had something to do with it,” said Osterholm, a director at the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota.

He said the implications for a pandemic today are much greater because of the world population, owing in part to the fast speed of travelling the globe.

“Even if it’s a moderate pandemic, the implications will be huge,” said Osterholm.

Dr. James Young said that while he agreed with Osterholm, his approach is somewhat different.

“Assuming the very worst may not be the best way to approach the problem,” said Young, a special advisor to the deputy minister at Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Canada.

In an event such as a pandemic influenza, communication is crucial and one of the government agencies that can play a key role in the distribution of that information is the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC).

“The Public Health Agency of Canada will be communicating with the public and various stakeholders before, during and after the pandemic,” said Alain Desroches, a PHAC spokesperson. “This includes providing general info to the public as well as issuing more specific guidelines to stakeholders.”

He said that during a pandemic, health care workers will also receive information through the Pan-Canadian Public Health Network.

“This network will share public health knowledge and expertise and provide ability for learning from best practices in the country,” said Desroches. “The Network will also be able to implement efficient and collaborative approaches to public health issues and challenges.”

Young stressed that debate is crucial.

“We need to raise these issues, we need to get our head around this,” he said. “Where the debate is, is how disruptive it will be and how we can manage it.”

Young said that one of the lessons learned by the government from SARS is the need to revitalize and remember the important role of public health.

PHAC is the lead organization for public communications if the pandemic has moved beyond a single province or if a national emergency has been declared, according to Desroches.

“PHAC will also ensure that communications channels are open with the World Health Organization, the U.S. department of Health and Human Services, and the Centre for Disease Control to ensure an ongoing exchange of information and consistent communications from the international community on the pandemic,” he said.

The public will have access to information through toll-free lines and an emergency specific Web site, as well as through information delivered via the media, said Desroches.

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