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UK global health team ready to respond to disease outbreaks in 48 hours

1 November 2016

£20m initiative announced to help prevent global health emergencies on behalf of the UK Government.

The London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine has been chosen to jointly run the newly established UK Public Health Rapid Support Team in partnership with Public Health England.

The initiative means the UK has a fully operational specialist team that can be deployed anywhere in the world within 48 hours to tackle disease outbreaks which have the potential to develop into major health emergencies.

The team has been established in response to the Ebola crisis in West Africa, which highlighted the need for the international community to develop a system to help support countries respond to and control disease outbreaks before they can develop into a global threat.

It will continually monitor infectious disease outbreaks around the world, identifying situations where the deployment of specialist expertise could help mitigate threats. When not responding to a disease outbreak, the team will research how best to deal with different types of outbreak scenario as well as training a group of public health reservists so the UK maintains the capability to rapidly scale up responses to outbreaks.

As part of the initiative, the School will lead a consortium of research institutions which includes the University of Oxford and King's College London as academic partners.

Jimmy Whitworth, Professor of International Public Health at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, who has led the team's development for the School, said: "The UK Public Health Rapid Support Team brings together two very important concepts - a national force on stand-by to help with international responses to outbreaks around the world, and a team of experts dedicated to operational research, planning and evaluating our outbreak response so that we can improve our response in future outbreaks.

"The School was actively involved in responding to the Ebola crisis in West Africa and is working on the current Zika and Yellow Fever epidemics - our involvement in the Rapid Support Team builds on this experience. We'll be conducting rigorous research to improve epidemic preparedness and future responses and will rapidly share this information with the scientific community."

The UK Public Health Rapid Support Team has been developed as part of the UK contribution to global health security and to complement the World Health Organization's work on the Global Health Emergency Workforce. The team will be funded over five years by £20 million made available from the UK development assistance budget.

Video: Jimmy Whitworth on the UK Public Health Rapid Support Team

Public Health Minister, Nicola Blackwood, who visited the School to mark the launch of the team, said: "Ebola shook the world and brave experts from the UK led the global response in Sierra Leone. The ability to deploy emergency support to investigate and respond to disease outbreaks within 48 hours will save lives, prevent further outbreaks and cement the UK's position as a leader in global health security."

The core team includes experts in tracking the progress of an outbreak (epidemiologists); in diagnosing the cause of an outbreak (microbiologists); in advising on outbreak control measures (infection prevention and control) and community responses to outbreaks (social scientists); and in developing the best clinical response measures (clinical researchers).

The London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine is a world authority in public and global health research. During the Ebola crisis School staff advised governments, analysed data to assist in response planning, conducted clinical trials of vaccines and treatments, provided a free online course for healthcare professionals, developed culturally sensitive interventions to change behaviour in local communities, volunteered on the frontline in Ebola treatment centres, and carried out research to strengthen the global response to future infectious disease epidemics. The School is currently involved in the response to the Zika virus outbreak.

Professor Peter Piot, Director of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, said: "We are proud that we will play a key role in protecting the UK from global epidemics. It is also vital that the UK helps strengthen vulnerable countries to detect and respond quickly to disease outbreaks. This means the world will be better prepared to prevent future epidemics, and we will not witness such suffering, death and social and economic disaster as we saw in the Ebola crisis."

The School will work to expand the range of scientific expertise used for outbreak control, including improved laboratory and data management, analysis of policy response, mathematical modelling, patient-oriented research, clinical trials, rapid microbiological and genetic sequencing, community engagement, and approaches for mental health and wellbeing support.

Expert teaching will be provided in the UK via Master's courses and overseas via distance learning to train the next generation of experts in infectious disease control.

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