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NORTHCOM hosts Canada, Mexico at Pandemic Influenza Conference

By Sgt. 1st Class Gail Braymen, USA
Special to American Forces Press Service

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo., Sept. 7, 2007 – Representatives from American, Canadian and Mexican military and government agencies came to U.S. Northern Command headquarters here this week to discuss their plans and preparedness for a possible influenza pandemic.

About 80 officials are attending NORTHCOM's first Tri-National Pandemic Influenza Conference.

"Pandemic influenza does not respect borders," said Francisco Averhoff, chief of quarantine and border health services at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "It's clear that it's necessary, when you talk about this disease, that we need to have a continental strategy and work together with our partners in Canada and Mexico to make sure that we can best deal with this."

Health officials cannot predict if or when a pandemic influenza will develop, but a particularly dangerous strain of avian flu known as H5N1 is being closely monitored around the world for signs it may be spreading from human to human.

"North America is a region, and we are close neighbors," said Dr. Ethel Palacios Zavala, deputy director of emergency preparedness for international health emergencies in Mexico's Ministry of Health. "This (conference) gives us an opportunity to share what we have been doing in the preparedness arena for pandemic influenza. It is also an excellent opportunity to meet face to face the people that you have been working with across the phone line or maybe an e-mail ... and have close personal contact with the other people in the region."

In a report on the North American plan for avian and pandemic influenza released in August at the North American Leaders' Summit in Montebello, Quebec, officials from Canada, Mexico and the United States committed to cooperating with mitigation efforts as much as possible. That makes NORTHCOM's timing for this conference perfect, said William Horne, secretariat of the pandemic influenza preparedness committee of Canada's Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade.

"It's absolutely vital the three countries get together in very close working relationships," Horne said. "It was great of NORTHCOM to host this event and bring us all together to do that sharing. It would be important anyway, but it fits so nicely with the release of that report.

"I think it's a golden opportunity for those of us to make personal contacts with other people who are working in this field."

Government and health officials are better prepared to deal with the consequences of an influenza pandemic since the outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS, in 2002 and 2003, Averhoff said.

"I think we had a large wake-up call with SARS," Averhoff said. "When SARS happened a few years ago, we realized that infectious diseases can transverse the world ... very quickly through air travel. And there's a need for rapid coordination of activities between countries. With that experience, I think pandemic influenza preparedness has been really unique in the way people are actually proactively trying to deal with these issues before it happens as opposed to reactively."

NORTHCOM’s mission is homeland defense and civil support. The command conducts operations to deter, prevent, defeat and mitigate threats and aggression aimed at the United States, its territories and interests within the assigned area of responsibility and provides military assistance to civil authorities.

In the event of a pandemic, NORTHCOM primarily is concerned with continuity of operations and force protection. The command also expects to be asked to provide support to civil authorities.

(Army Sgt. 1st Class Gail Braymen is assigned to the combined Public Affairs Office of North American Aerospace Defense Command and U.S. Northern Command.)

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