Director-General

Experts begin their assessment of the response to the H1N1 influenza pandemic

Dr Margaret Chan
Director-General of the World Health Organization

Opening remarks at the first meeting of the Review Committee of the International Health Regulations
Geneva, Switzerland

12 April 2010

Excellencies, distinguished members of the Review Committee, representatives of member states, colleagues in the UN system, representatives of nongovernmental organizations, members of the media, ladies and gentlemen,

I am pleased to welcome you to the start of this review process. I am also pleased to see such a broad range of interests and expertise represented in this room.

This has been the first influenza pandemic in four decades. This has been the first major test of the functioning of the revised International Health Regulations, which entered into force in 2007.

The International Health Regulations have a provision that calls for a review of their functioning no later than five years after their entry into force. In 2008, the World Health Assembly decided that this first review should be undertaken by the Sixty-third World Health Assembly in May 2010.

As you know, this provision and this decision were in place prior to the onset of the 2009 H1N1 influenza pandemic.

During the January 2010 session of the Executive Board, I proposed that the scheduled IHR review could also be used to assess the international response to the influenza pandemic. The Executive Board agreed to this proposal.

I believe there is merit in assessing the performance of an international instrument, like the IHR, when put to an extreme test by a widespread and closely scrutinized infectious disease event.

As I have said before, this has been the most closely watched and carefully scrutinized pandemic in history. This gives us a vast body of scientific, clinical, and epidemiological data to assess.

Moreover, the pandemic’s spread was rapidly global. To date, laboratory confirmed cases of H1N1 pandemic influenza have been officially reported from 213 countries and overseas territories or communities. This gives us a vast and varied experience to assess.

The outbreak of SARS, the first severe new disease of the 21st century, occurred in 2003 while drafting of the revised Regulations was under way. Experiences during that outbreak led to many refinements in the Regulations, including the introduction of a system of checks and balances to ensure that no one, myself included, has unfettered power.

I see potential advantages in assessing the performance of the Regulations with a particular focus on the influenza pandemic and how it was managed, especially at the international level by WHO. When the performance of the IHR is assessed under the challenging conditions of an influenza pandemic, specific strengths and weaknesses are likely to come to light.

Ladies and gentlemen,

In planning and organizing this review, WHO aimed to facilitate a process that is independent, credible, and transparent. We want a frank and critical assessment. WHO is not defining or restricting the scope of specific issues that may arise. If our member states have questions or concerns, we want to hear these questions and concerns raised.

We are seeking lessons, about how the IHR has functioned, about how WHO and the international community responded to the pandemic, that can aid the management of future public health emergencies of international concern. And I can assure you: there will be more.

We want to know what worked well. We want to know what went wrong and, ideally, why. We want to know what can be done better and, ideally, how.

In a spirit of inclusiveness, this meeting has been opened to a range of organizations and agencies interested in improving our collective management of public health emergencies. We want to hear your views as well.

To support the credibility and independent nature of the review process, the Secretariat has been diligent in inviting a membership in this committee that is geographically balanced, that includes the views and experiences of developing and developed countries, and that represents a broad range of scientific expertise and practical experience in multiple disciplines.

The Secretariat has also been especially vigilant in seeking out possible conflicts of interest among committee members.

As I said, we want a frank, critical, transparent, credible and independent review of our performance, as well as that of the International Health Regulations. The Secretariat will do everything it can to facilitate such a process.

Thank you.

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