Alert, response, and capacity building under the International Health Regulations (IHR)

IHR News

The WHO quarterly bulletin on IHR implementation

30 June 2009, No. 7

WHO response to pandemic (H1N1) 2009 virus

In late April, further to the emergence of human cases of a novel influenza A (H1N1) virus in North America, the virus continued to spread to many countries, with increasing numbers of people affected. To date there have been total of more than 50,000 confirmed cases of pandemic (H1N1) 2009 virus in more than 100 countries.

In response to the first reported cases and in accordance with the International Health Regulations (IHR), the WHO Director-General convened, on 25 April, the 1st meeting of the IHR Emergency Committee, comprised of leading influenza experts, virologists and public health officials, to seek their view on the event. Further to this consultation, the WHO Director-General declared this event a public health emergency of international concern, the first since the revised International Health Regulations came into force on 15 June 2007. As part of the response, WHO set up an operations group, including logistics, the Global Outbreak and Response Network (GOARN), and planning. Four task forces were created on science knowledge and standards, vaccine, antiviral and zoonosis. In addition, a WHO Global Response Plan was developed, outlining the specific response activities in place at headquarters and in the six WHO regions.

As WHO monitored the global course of the epidemic, the Director-General continued to consult the IHR Emergency Committee and declared the move from phase 4 to phase 5. Then, on 11 June, with sustained community spread in multiple locations around the globe and on the basis of expert assessments, the level of influenza pandemic alert was raised to phase 6 as the scientific criteria for an influenza pandemic had been met. The phase change was not a signal that the virus had become more virulent but rather reflected its extensive geographic spread.

WHO, working 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, through its emergency response mechanism at headquarters and in all six regional offices, continues to monitor the evolution of the pandemic and the severity of illness, which could change over time and manifest itself differently in different locations, population groups, and countries. To keep countries informed at any time of new developments, the WHO Event Information System, which links WHO and the National IHR Focal Points in all countries, is continuously updated, while the general public is also kept informed via situation updates.

The emergence of Pandemic (H1N1) 2009 virus underscores the importance for all countries to strengthen their national disease surveillance and response capacities. This is one important IHR requirement. Towards this goal, the six WHO regional offices provide technical guidance to all countries to help them improve their national surveillance and response systems and meet the IHR core capacity requirements by 2012. Much needs to be done and time is running out.

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