Conference Reflections: Emergency Preparedness & International Health – Different Fields, Same Goals

Last week I was given the opportunity to attend the Preparedness Summit in Atlanta. This conference is the first and longest running national conference that discusses and revolves around the world of public health preparedness (think: natural disasters, medical countermeasures, flu, Zika and Ebola responses, biological threats and much more). There were many different opportunities to learn about preparedness activities including plenaries, small discussions, learning sessions and networking with local, state and federal partners. It was overwhelming, but in a good way!

As an epidemiologist, I have some experience and background in public health preparedness activities, but my main interests and time have always been spent with infectious diseases and global health initiatives. When I worked for the state health department, I actually was on a team that was half epidemiologists and half preparedness staff and we continually supported each other’s activities. Those experiences helped me with preparedness lingo and acronyms used during the conference so that things didn’t go completely over my head. However, I would not consider myself a preparedness expert by any means and soaked up as much as I could from the various sessions I attended.

One of the most exciting activities from the week was visiting the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). This EOC is the center that gets activated in a public health emergency and where experts gather and get ready to respond. The main room of the EOC is spacious, with many computers, television screens and telephones set up and ready to be filled with points of contacts from different divisions and organizations. When there’s not an emergency response going on (like on our tour), it’s actually pretty quiet. However, staff are still on call working to monitor information and sift through potential threats. During a response, I’m sure the place is bustling with people, calls, information sharing and meetings. It was a neat experience to be in the center communication hub where past emergency responses like Hurricane Katrina in 2005 or the 2014 Ebola outbreaks took place.

I did some research after attending the summit and found that the EOC has become an integral part of meeting the goals of the “Global Health Security Agenda (GHSA)”. This agenda is focused on “accelerating progress toward a world safe and secure from infectious disease threats and to promote global health security as an international security priority.” Over 50 countries have joined in partnership with the U.S. to meet this objective and the CDC aims to activate the EOC and respond within 2 hours of any mandated public health emergency. There’s even a fellowship offered by the CDC called the “Public Health Emergency Management Fellowship” that provides an opportunity for public health workers to learn and train over a four-month course then go back to their respective countries and create their own local EOCs. Emergency management experts can also be sent to these countries and help guide and train responders in their own environment if needed.

This post-tour research made me start thinking about the importance of the EOC and preparedness in relation to international health. Public health threats (like pandemic flu, Zika, Ebola) of any degree can happen at any time at the local, state, national, or international level. Bill Gates recently spoke out about the necessity of being prepared for public health threats such as these at the Massachusetts Medical Society 2018. He stressed how unprepared we are for the next epidemic and the world’s need for a “global approach” with “better tools, an early detection system, and a global response system”. Gates’ is most likely alluding to the poor handling of the Ebola outbreaks in the recent past. These are a perfect example of why the field of preparedness is so important to global health. During Ebola, public health response was “too late” and there were too many “deaths that could have been prevented”. There were many disagreements among global health leaders over things like travel bans, how to handle public panic and how to best respond. The aftereffects of the outbreak point to the integral link between a strong preparedness field and international health that was lacking. Gates’ argues that we weren’t prepared to handle prior outbreaks, but we are capable and should spend time and money on planning and preparing for similar epidemics in the future.

Overall, these events – the conference, EOC tour and recent news and outbreaks – have helped hit home that these different public health fields, although working in slightly different capacities, are really aligned and influential on each other. Ultimately, preparedness and global health are working to reach the same goals of keeping our planet safe and healthy and we must first be prepared for any global threat in order to achieve these goals. Today, I feel refreshed in my perspective of the field and inspired and hopeful of future preparedness efforts. I no longer feel that preparedness and international health belong in the different boxes or divisions I’ve created in my mind, but as two parts to the same path.

I challenge other public health workers to also think about the important link between preparedness and global health and advocate for changes that strengthen this partnership. The Preparedness Summit conference is a great starting place and I encourage all fields of public health workers to look into it! I truly believe the more you learn, the more you see how everything is connected and the better you are able to achieve your public health goals … and maybe find some new teammates from other fields to help you along your journey, too.

 

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