By Mark Rosenberg, Chief Executive Officer, The Task Force for Global Health
From 2014-2015, we witnessed the most widespread outbreak of Ebola virus disease in history. The outbreak reached epidemic status and caused more than 11,000 deaths across the West African nations of Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea. Ebola even showed up in Atlanta when Emory University Hospital staff successfully treated and discharged four Ebola patients transferred from West African health facilities.
A major factor in Ebola’s spread during this outbreak was weak surveillance systems in countries affected by the disease. In response to this need, TEPHINET, a program at the Decatur-based Task Force for Global Health, has been actively involved in strengthening the capacity of West African countries to detect and respond to Ebola.
Beginning in spring 2015, TEPHINET partnered with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the African Field Epidemiology Network (AFENET) to organize basic-level field surveillance training for frontline public health workers. The program, called Surveillance Training for Ebola Preparedness (STEP), ran through last summer and consisted of hands-on training sessions for public health practitioners in disease surveillance and outbreak response.
TEPHINET provided expert trainers and mentors from its global pool of senior epidemiologists and CDC developed the training curriculum. STEP targeted countries deemed to be at risk for Ebola outbreaks, beginning with Côte d’Ivoire in early 2015. The training program was later rolled out in Guinea-Bissau, Mali, and Senegal, where more than 200 public health professionals received training. One-week teaching sessions were followed by three weeks of fieldwork. Participants also received critical mentorship from senior epidemiologists.
“STEP takes what these epidemiologists already do in their everyday jobs—surveillance, outbreak investigation, and data analysis—and fine tunes it to deal specifically with Ebola,” explains Biagio Pedalino, a resident advisor for a TEPHINET field epidemiology training program (FETP) who served as a trainer in three countries.
STEP trainees also learned to use mobile data collection technology to record and share daily updates on Ebola outbreaks.
“In controlling Ebola, time is everything,” says Pedalino. “Our ability to quickly share information allows us to respond much more rapidly so that we can contain this deadly disease.”
The outbreak proved the value of FETPs supported by TEPHINET. FETP graduates and trainees in African countries and from around the world have been critical in providing assistance to countries affected by Ebola. In fact, the Nigeria FETP served as the backbone of the workforce behind the outbreak in Nigeria.
Since its inception in 1997, TEPHINET has become an alliance of 62 FETPs engaging residents to strengthen global public health capacity in 88 countries. TEPHINET joined The Task Force for Global Health in 2008. Its FETPs are affiliated with local and national organizations including research institutes, institutes of public health, universities, and other nongovernmental organizations. At the beginning of this year, more than 10,000 residents had graduated from a TEPHINET program.