What would you do if faced with “cat flu”?

Thirty countries and areas in the Western Pacific Region test their outbreak response capacity through an annual simulation exercise

December 2017

A mystery illness is spreading in cats. At the same time, doctors are starting to notice an increasing number of cat-owners and vets coming to their clinics, reporting flu-like symptoms…

This is the hypothetical scenario that 30 countries and areas of the Western Pacific Region faced in this year’s Exercise Crystal, an annual simulation designed to test familiarity with the International Health Regulations (IHR 2005) and communication with the World Health Organization (WHO) during a large-scale outbreak. By the end of the exercise, the fictional disease had infected hundreds of people in the participants’ own country and had spread internationally.

The Emergency Operations Centre for the Western Pacific Region abuzz with activity, supporting IHR Exercise Crystal.
WHO/L. O'Connor

“While a scenario involving pet cats initially seems absurd, it is actually not too far from the truth,” said Dr Masaya Kato, Programme Area Manager for Country Preparedness and IHR (2005) at the WHO Regional Office for the Western Pacific. “Zoonotic diseases—that is, diseases which are transmitted between animals and humans—are something we have to prepare for. Some recent examples have been avian influenza, Middle East respiratory syndrome and plague. We wanted participants to think through what they would do if faced with such a scenario. Do they know how to reach their animal health counterparts? And do they know when and how to notify WHO?”

Many of the participants in the exercise were National IHR Focal Points—the people and centres responsible for reporting significant public health events to WHO and the international community.

The team from Viet Nam crafts a message to WHO, sharing information on the fictional outbreak as part of the simulation exercise.
Viet Nam National IHR Focal Point

WHO has conducted IHR Exercise Crystal in the Western Pacific Region almost every year since 2008. The exception was in 2009, when resources were instead directed to a real-life event—pandemic influenza H1N1.

However, simulation exercises are just one of the ways that WHO helps the countries and areas of the Western Pacific Region ensure that they have the appropriate systems and capacities in place long before a public health emergency occurs. The cornerstone of WHO’s work to support country preparedness in the Region is the Asia Pacific Strategy for Emerging Diseases and Public Health Emergencies (APSED III). APSED III is a common framework outlining how countries can work together with WHO and partners to advance IHR (2005) implementation and protect their citizens—and the citizens of neighbouring countries—during outbreaks and other public health events.

WHO’s Regional Emergency Director for the Western Pacific, Dr Ailan Li, thanks participants for their engagement with the exercise.
WHO/D. Rivada

“We don’t know when and where the next health security threat will emerge, but it will happen,” said Dr Ailan Li, WHO’s Regional Emergency Director for the Western Pacific. “Outbreaks and health emergencies can claim thousands of lives and devastate economies. However, careful preparedness, prompt detection and rapid response can save lives and limit economic losses. We have been incredibly impressed with the level of enthusiasm countries and areas have brought to IHR Exercise Crystal over the past 9 years and we will continue to work together to build the capacities needed to cope with potential health emergencies.”