Countries in Africa are no strangers to major disease outbreaks that can result in illness and death of millions of people. In the past two years alone the continent has experienced infectious disease outbreaks of cholera, meningitis, Ebola Virus Disease, Lassa fever, and Yellow fever, and other public health emergencies such as drought and famine.
Understanding the big picture
It is vitally important to have a big picture perspective on emergency management and response – if one country is not prepared for a public health emergency, then all the countries in the region are susceptible to public health threats that can easily cross borders and impact surrounding countries. This is where public health emergency management (PHEM) comes in. In-country PHEM capacities and systems can be strengthened to support global health security. When the workforce is trained, emergency management infrastructure is in place, and functional systems exist, a country is better positioned to execute a coordinated response that can mitigate risk and save lives.
CDC and other international partners support ongoing efforts to help countries across Africa build capacity in outbreak detection and response. This includes preventing avoidable epidemics, detecting public health threats early, and responding rapidly and effectively to outbreaks of international concern. CDC provides expertise in PHEM to train emergency management technicians, provide input on emergency management operations, and guide development of functional processes and systems for ministries of health around the globe.
Getting the workforce ready to respond
In August 2017, CDC spearheaded a 5-day PHEM workshop in partnership with the World Health Organization, the United States Defense Threat Reduction Agency, and Public Health England. The workshop brought together 55 emergency management staff members from across Africa to learn from experts in the field about how to enhance coordination and response capabilities of their country’s PHEM programs.
Participants came from seven countries – Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Nigeria – which all share common interests and challenges related to emergency response. The training focused on developing core principles in PHEM, including trained staff, physical infrastructure, and processes to run a fully functional Public Health Emergency Operations Center (PHEOC). The training highlighted best practices, but since many of the participants had first-hand accounts of responding to public health events in their own countries, they were encouraged to share experiences and network with their peers.
Sharing knowledge and expertise
Public health professionals who work in emergency response know that it’s important to build relationships before an incident so that during a response you work effectively and efficiently with partners. One participant noted that the “rich, valuable contributions from other people’s experiences to build upon what I already knew” was one of the most rewarding parts of the workshop.
The tabletop exercises at the end of the workshop emphasized the importance of information and idea sharing. Participants engaged in tabletop exercises that simulated a response to a Yellow Fever outbreak in northern Tanzania. Participants were divided into 7 teams: management, plans, logistics, operations, finance and administration, communication, and partners. Each team had a mix of participants from different countries. Teams utilized information they had learned throughout the workshop to developed response products, including an organizational structure chart, objectives for the response, and an initial situation report. This exercise led to a robust conversation about different approaches to public health emergency response.
Seeing response in action
A highlight of the training was when Dr. Ally Nyanga, the Tanzania Ministry of Health PHEOC Manager and an alumni of the CDC Public Health Emergency Management Fellowship, took workshop participants on a tour of the Tanzania PHEOC, a small room on the third floor of the Ministry of Health building. Previously used as a storage area for the library, the 10 x 20 foot PHEOC is now an efficient space that staff can use when they respond to public health emergencies and outbreaks. To date, Tanzania’s PHEOC has been activated to respond to widespread cases of Aflotoxicosis, a type of severe food poisoning, and cholera outbreaks in Tanzania.
While the workshop is over and participants have returned home, the work that they do to prepare for the next public health emergency is ongoing. The workshop highlighted some important takeaways – you do not need a big space and high-tech equipment to respond quickly and efficiently to a public health emergency. Instead, coordination to share information, resources, and ideas is vital to a successful emergency response, both in-country and across an entire region.