We have a strong track record of responding to emergencies and major outbreaks, whether through research or by providing immediate information, advice, courses and action.
Our experts have contributed to tackling SARS, swine flu, zoonotic diseases and many other health threats over the years. Recently this has come to prominence during Zika and Ebola outbreaks when staff mobilised to help investigate from all angles and seek solutions as quickly and effectively as possible.
As a result, the School was chosen to jointly run the UK Public Health Rapid Support Team in partnership with Public Health England. Funded by the UK Government, this will ensure the UK has a fully operational specialist team that can be deployed anywhere in the world to tackle disease outbreaks which have the potential to develop into major health emergencies.
When the Ebola outbreak in West Africa was declared a public health emergency of international concern in August 2014, the School coordinated urgent response efforts. More than 400 academic and professional services staff volunteered to deploy via organisations including Save the Children, Médecins Sans Frontières and Public Health England. Some went to affected countries, others advised governments and international agencies, backfilled posts at the World Health Organization (WHO) or carried out mathematical modelling and other research to support Ebola response planning.
Activities were also focused on working with communities to develop culturally sensitive ways of preventing the spread of the virus through the Ebola Response Anthropology Platform and fast-tracking clinical trials of Ebola vaccines and treatments. Students even cleansed Ebola patient record data for WHO to ensure sites of outbreaks were recorded accurately.
We launched a free online course ‘Ebola in Context: Understanding Transmission, Response and Control’ to provide a better understanding of the Ebola virus for health professionals, workers in the field and students – more than 24,000 people from 185 countries participated.
The work of the School throughout the Ebola outbreak was instrumental in mobilising the international community, helping to shape the response of governments, NGOs, and international health agencies, and educating future leaders in public and global health. Our far-reaching efforts were recognised by the award of University of the Year 2016 from Times Higher Education.
Although this response helped to eventually bring the virus under control, research including vaccine trials such as EBOVAC are still under way in the hope that prolonged protection will be possible and prevent further epidemics on this scale.
In the wake of Ebola, a new public health emergency hit with Zika. The virus, spread by Aedes mosquitoes, and its associated health effects had a devastating impact in 2016.
Experts from the School have been actively involved in responding to the outbreak, carrying out research into areas including the links with microcephaly among babies born to women with Zika, vector control methods, outbreak mapping, and potential vaccines, treatments and diagnostics. Staff including Professor Laura Rodrigues were already investigating in Brazil when the WHO declared that the cluster of microcephaly cases and other neurological disorders were a public health emergency of international concern. The announcement triggered investment in mosquito control efforts and vital funding for research into the virus and its health consequences and allowed for the scale-up of initial efforts. We developed a free online course ‘Preventing the Zika Virus: Understanding and Controlling the Aedes Mosquito’.
Experts are now working on a number of studies into Zika as part of the ZikaPLAN and ZIKAlliance collaborations, including the risks the virus poses to newborn babies, routes of transmission, its potential global spread and ways to stop it.