Mr. Chairman, thank you for this opportunity to present the results of our audit on surveillance of infectious diseases at the Public Health Agency of Canada, published in our May 2008 report.
With me today, as you've noted, is Louise Dubé, principal responsible for audits of the Public Health Agency of Canada.
Important to note is that the work on this audit was completed in October 2007, and we have not audited actions taken by the agency since then.
Public health officials need to know when and where infectious disease outbreaks occur so that they can reduce the health impacts on Canadians. The Public Health Agency of Canada, created in 2004, is the federal organization responsible for the surveillance of infectious diseases. The agency works in concert with other federal departments and agencies and other levels of government, as well as health professionals, hospitals, and laboratories across the country.
One of the things we examined was whether the agency, in collaboration with its partners, had obtained, analyzed, and disseminated the information needed by public health officials in Canada and internationally to help anticipate, prevent, and respond to threats of infectious disease.
We also followed up on some serious concerns raised by our audits in 1999 and 2002, when surveillance of infectious diseases was the responsibility of Health Canada.
We found that the fundamental weaknesses noted in our 1999 and 2002 reports remained. Although some important steps had been taken, our concerns related to strategic direction, data quality, results measurement and information sharing had not been satisfactorily addressed.
We also found that to obtain routine surveillance information, the agency relied on the goodwill of the provinces and territories to send useful and complete data, but this was not always done and the flow of information was interrupted at times. After two years of negotiations, the agency signed in September 2007 a comprehensive information-sharing agreement with one province, Ontario.
We were concerned that a nationally standardized approach to disease reporting remained years away.
Good information-sharing is especially critical in the event of a public health emergency. Local or provincial public health officials will almost certainly be the first to detect a public health emergency. As a national focal point, the agency needs the information about such events because, according to the revised International Health Regulations of 2005, the agency has 48 hours to assess all reports of urgent events to determine whether a potential public health emergency of international concern exists. The agency then has 24 hours to notify the World Health Organization of the results of the assessment.
Although the agency has laid the groundwork for sharing essential information in emergency situations, we found that critical arrangements still needed to be sorted out. For example, public health officials at all levels need to know the procedures for notifying other parties and what personal health information they can and should share so they can respond appropriately to the outbreak and ultimately save lives.
Therefore, faced with a public health threat that could affect other countries, and without information-sharing agreements in place, the agency may be unable to notify the World Health Organization within the times specified in the revised International Health Regulations (2005) and to keep it informed of subsequent events.
We are pleased that the Public Health Agency of Canada has agreed with our recommendations and that it has published an action plan and a timetable for its implementation on its website. Many of the actions identified in the action plan are time-sensitive. For example, in order for the agency to meet its obligations under the International Health Regulations (2005), an assessment of the surveillance capacity at the local, provincial, and national levels needs to be carried out by 15 June 2009, and mechanisms to ensure a complete and timely flow of information between the agency and the provinces and territories on public health emergencies need to be in place by June 2012.
Mr. Chairman, because this area is so critically important to Canadians, your committee may wish to ask the agency's officials what concrete results they have achieved since the tabling of our report in May 2008. Because many of the recommendations in the report date back to 1999 and 2002, the committee may also wish to obtain a commitment from the Public Health Agency to implement our recommendations and to provide the committee with regular progress reports.
Mr. Chairman, that concludes my opening statement and we would be pleased to answer your committee's questions.