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Agencies report on 'lessons learned' from H1N1 pandemic

The Public Health Agency of Canada and Health Canada have issued a "Lessons Learned Review" of their response to the 2009 H1N1 pandemic. While the report describes many successes in fighting the pandemic, the recommendations for improvement indicate that Ottawa and the provinces were often communicating poorly to one another, to healthcare professionals, and to the public.

Among the successes listed in the report: Good surveillance and research; good collaboration between federal, provincial and territorial governments; effective communication with Canadians; good cooperation between governments and First Nations leaders; and advance planning that ensured an adequate supply of vaccine.

Nevertheless, the report says, "improvements are required."

Evidently flu surveillance information was not shared across jurisdictions, and scientists needed a mechanism to ensure that critical research could be carried out quickly. Various advisory groups worked within the pandemic governance structure, but their roles and responsibilities were unclear. Scientific findings were often written so technically that they were of little use for planning, decision-making, and communicating with the public.

Guidance, the provision of advice for healthcare workers and the public, was slow to emerge and the role of Ottawa in framing such advice was unclear. Health professionals needed better guidance documents and the public found it was getting inconsistent information depending on the jurisdiction. Better guidance, the report says, is also needed for those dealing with the logistics of supplying First Nations bands.

The report offers three recommendations for improvement in dealing with future pandemics:

Recommendation 1 — Further strengthen federal/provincial/territorial capacity to prepare for and respond to pandemic influenza.

Recommendation 2 — Continue to clarify, communicate and test federal emergency management roles, responsibilities and mechanisms, with particular attention to sustainability of response capacity and decision-making roles.

Recommendation 3 — Improve the Health Portfolio's ability to communicate science to various audiences.

The third recommendation urged "plain-language approaches to convey complex scientific findings, processes, uncertainties, risks and shifts for various audiences/purposes."

In B.C., 1,059 persons were hospitalized with H1N1 between April 2009 and January 2010. About 55 died.

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

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