Mexican, Canadian, U.S. reps attend USNORTHCOM pandemic influenza seminar

By Sgt. 1st Class Gail Braymen | NORAD and USNORTHCOM Public Affairs | July 22, 2008

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. – More than 100 Mexican, Canadian and U.S. officials representing a myriad of government agencies and organizations attended U.S. Northern Command’s Trinational Pandemic Influenza Tabletop Exercise and Seminar last week.

The event was funded by the U.S. Department of Defense Global Emerging Infections Surveillance and Response System, which is designed to strengthen the prevention and surveillance of and response to infectious diseases that are a threat to military personnel and families, reduce medical readiness or present a risk to U.S. national security.

“The goals of the conference were pretty simple,” said Navy Capt. Frank Doris, Pandemic Influenza Team Lead in the Plans, Policy and Strategy Directorate of USNORTHCOM and the North American Aerospace Defense Command. “The number one goal was simply to provide a forum for [discussion] between the three nations and to identify any gaps or seams [in pandemic influenza response planning] within the North American continent.

“I think we achieved the goal of open and honest [discussion], and the three nations certainly did get an idea of the others’ planning efforts.”

During the seminar’s tabletop exercise, participants discussed critical issues and challenges their respective governments would face in the event of a pandemic influenza in North America. Some of those issues and challenges were coordinating various levels of governmental authority, assigning official spokespeople, disseminating official information and messages, distributing medicines, closing schools and businesses, moving people and goods across borders and sharing information with other countries.

Dr. Yessica Chaparro, the Deputy Director of Emerging and Reemerging Diseases in the Emergency Health Department of Mexico’s Ministry of Health, attended USNORTHCOM’s Trinational Pandemic Influenza Conference last fall, as well as the tabletop exercise and seminar last week.

“One of the changes I have observed [since the 2007 conference] is that there has been a lot of progress in the preparation in the three countries,” she said. Chaparro also noted that “there’s been progress from a couple of years ago until now about sharing experiences and sharing information in order to improve our response capacity in the three countries.”

While her country’s proximity to the United States tends to allow Mexican officials to have closer relationships with their U.S. counterparts, Chaparro said she is especially glad “to make strong points of contact with Canada” as a result of attending the USNORTHCOM seminar.

“I think it’s very important to have coordination between the three countries,” she said, “especially between the points of contact facing the possibility of a pandemic situation.”

Although Paul Roué is currently the Canadian Consul for Management and Consular Services at the Canadian Consulate General in New York City, in September he will move to Ottawa to become the Director General for Canada’s Emergency Management Bureau. He found the USNORTHCOM seminar very useful and helpful because he is new to the “emergency” community and just learning the basics of what a pandemic is and what the Canadian, U.S. and Mexican response plans are.

“I’m very impressed with the work that all three countries have done to ensure that we have a plan in place that can manage this from a North American perspective, and not just a regional or country perspective,” Roué said. “I think it’s very important to work through these scenarios so that we have an idea of what each country will plan to do in case of an emergency, and how we can best support each other to make sure that the ‘North American unit,’ as they called it this week, is best servicing our citizens.”

Although a possible pandemic influenza is “not a front-page story anymore,” Doris said, “the way ahead [for the United States, Mexico and Canada] is to continue open and honest communication and to not allow focus on this threat to be diminished. The threat is not diminished. The attention it gets has.

“It’s NORTHCOM’s job to stay ready to the best of our abilities.”

U.S. Northern Command was established on Oct. 1, 2002, to anticipate and conduct homeland defense and civil support operations within the assigned area of responsibility to defend, protect and secure the United States and its interests.