IFRC was pleased to receive, along with the rest of the world, the announcement from WHO's Director General Dr Margaret Chan declaring the H1N1 2009 influenza pandemic to be over.
During the pandemic, the international public health community did many things well:
- Governments contributed significantly to surveillance and provided leadership in the overall national response as the pandemic evolved.
- National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies helped to limit excess morbidity and mortality among the most vulnerable around the world.
Yet, we believe, as Dr Chan stated, “we were aided by pure good luck,” as the disease was not as severe as it could have been.
And yet, for many people the disease was fatal. IFRC would like to acknowledge the more than 18,500 victims who lost their life to the 2009 H1N1 pandemic. Each of these deaths is a tragedy.
It is likely that we will learn of many more deaths related to pandemic influenza over the coming months and the Red Cross Red Crescent regrets each one.
A recent inter-agency review of the IFRC's work, and that of its partners under the umbrella of the Humanitarian Pandemic Preparedness (H2P) Programme, to prepare for and respond to pandemic influenza showed that many Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies are more prepared today than at any time before.
- IFRC responded at scale, supporting preparedness or response activities in more than 90 countries, and activities like communicating life-saving messages in communities were at scale in many countries.
- Progress has been made to train staff and volunteers and first responders in communities, to prepare and adapt local education and communication materials, and to engage different actors in developing multi-sectoral pandemic preparedness plans of communities which are connected to national plans.
However, the report also showed that there are still dangerous gaps in many national plans. More attention must be paid to non-pharmaceutical interventions, to community preparedness, and the role of civil society actors in national plans.
Perhaps most concerning, the programme review concluded that without ongoing technical, financial and political support of the international community, the gains made to date – to protect millions of people from a severe outbreak of pandemic influenza – may be impossible to sustain.
We can best honour the victims of pandemic influenza, and fulfil our obligation to help protect the most vulnerable by naming accurately the risk that remains and working to mitigate that risk.
Threats are likely to increase
Again, Dr Chan, “it is likely that the virus will continue to cause serious disease in younger age groups, at least in the immediate post-pandemic phase… pandemics, like the viruses that cause them, are unpredictable. So is the immediate post-pandemic period… Continued vigilance is extremely important.”
We cannot predict when a current flu virus may mutate and become more dangerous, or when another virus may appear and initiate a new pandemic. Furthermore, UNOCHA reports that “every year on average there are two new emerging infectious diseases.”
In response to these ongoing risks, IFRC is updating its strategy so that it may continue to be a key player within the international global health community for issues related to community preparedness and response to pandemic and emerging infectious disease threats. Specifically, it will:
- mainstream the tools and material that national Red Cross and Red Crescent societies found so useful in response to H1N1 so that they become part of more permanent, institutionalized projects and systems.
- sustain the technical expertise to support our members in their current and future pandemic and emerging diseases preparedness and response activities; and.
- help its members benefit from our programme review so that the key lessons are used to assess readiness at the country-level, and then to refine and sustain pandemic and emerging infectious disease plans.
Humanitarian pandemic preparedness
WHO website for H1N1