Ensuring epidemic responders are fully prepared will help stop disease outbreaks in their tracks

My first outbreak as a front line health worker saw me confronted by cattle dying and the human population getting skin and gut problems in west Africa in the 1980s.
Caption: child washes in a Kamrangichar slum, Dhaka. Credit: Louis Leeson

It took time to realise that there was an outbreak happening, and then to work out that it was due to anthrax. We needed to urgently arrange treatment and cattle vaccinations, alert human and animal health authorities, and warn communities and advise them how to deal with cases and prevent more occurring.

More recently many of us were part of the international response to the recent Ebola outbreak in west Africa. This was a huge complex operation but brought the same feelings of nervousness, exhilaration, sadness and achievement.

These days my role has changed but outbreaks are still with us, and getting more challenging. Large outbreaks of deadly diseases are becoming the new normal, the World Health Organisation has warned. We are entering a new phase of high impact epidemics with a convergence of risks that increase the dangers of diseases including Ebola, cholera and yellow fever.

In the past year there have been 2,000 cases of Ebola in DRC and a million reported cases of cholera in Yemen. Climate change, emerging diseases, exploitation of the environment, urbanisation and highly mobile populations, porous borders and expanding international air travel, weak governments, concurrent humanitarian crises and conflict are all making epidemics more likely to occur and spread rapidly. Just in Africa, more than 70 outbreaks of infectious diseases and humanitarian crises are being monitored by WHO at any one time.

We need to be ready…and that means ensuring responders are fully prepared and equipped to detect and respond to outbreaks, and to learn each time how to do it better. This is especially so for low- and middle-income countries where the most dangerous pathogens are prevalent, the population is most vulnerable and health systems are weakest. 

This is the catalyst for the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine’s new Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) on Disease Outbreaks in LMICs. Free to join, the three week course begins on 16 September 2019 and is designed for those interested in, studying or working in global and public health such as government stakeholders, health practitioners and NGO employees working in countries regularly affected by infectious disease outbreaks.

The course will explore what constitutes a disease outbreak, the different types and their impact, and the importance of preparing to respond to outbreaks as soon as possible.

Coordinating outbreak responses at the country, regional and global level is crucial. The MOOC, developed by leading researchers with wide-ranging on-the- ground experience and expertise, will explore who is involved in controlling disease outbreaks and the roles of multidisciplinary team members. Students will learn how outbreaks are detected and responses triggered nationally and internationally, and the roles of research and ethics in effective outbreak response.

Pathogens evolve and outbreak response must too, so the course will look at future innovations, explore challenges encountered by multidisciplinary teams and discuss how outbreak preparedness and response might change.

LSHTM has a proud history of responding to outbreaks, from our Director, Professor Peter Piot, being part of the team that discovered Ebola in 1976, to our response to the Ebola epidemic in West Africa in 2014/15 which saw more than 500 academic and professional services staff volunteer to respond. Today, LSHTM is part of the Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network and often responds to requests for assistance with outbreaks around the world.  

With Public Health England we currently run the UK Public Health Rapid Support Team. Funded by the UK Government, the team can rapidly deploy public health experts at 48 hours’ notice to strengthen a country’s response to outbreaks and tackle the spread of disease.

We are delighted to have produced this online learning tool and thrilled that the course will be available in Arabic, French, Russian, Spanish, as well as English. Capacity building is a vital part of epidemic preparedness.

Never has our understanding of disease outbreaks and how to stop them in their tracks been more important. The world needs more people with stronger skills to be a part of epidemic preparedness, to help save lives now and in the future.

Register for the free online course Disease Outbreaks in Low and Middle Income Countries

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