Q&A on the Pandemic Frontlines: Insights on the First World Field Epidemiology Day

To honor field epidemiologists who are fighting the COVID-19 pandemic all around the world, September 7 marked the first World Field Epidemiology Day.

The Task Force’s Training Programs in Epidemiology and Public Health Interventions Network (TEPHINET), with nearly 19,000 people trained through national Field Epidemiology Training Programs (FETPs), led the development and inaugural celebration of this day to recognize the work of these vital public health disease detectives.

We asked global health security leaders, field epidemiologists, and our TEPHINET colleagues about the need for the work of field epidemiologists and the significance of the World Field Epidemiology Day celebration.

What is World Field Epidemiology Day
Tina Rezvani | Associate Director of Communications & Events

TEPHINET envisioned World Field Epidemiology Day as a global, multi-partner campaign to recognize and raise awareness of the vital role of field epidemiologists in protecting the health of populations and advancing global health security and to advocate for increased investment in field epidemiology training, research, and professionals. We selected September 7 as it was on this date in 1854 that English physician John Snow took his findings from his now-famous investigation of a cholera outbreak in London to local officials. During his investigation, Snow plotted cholera cases on a map of London and was able to identify the water pump that was the source of the disease. Cholera cases immediately began to diminish when the handle of the pump was removed.

Why are field epidemiology training programs (FETPs) a wise investment for global health security?
Dr. Oliver Morgan | Director, Health Emergency Information & Risk Assessment, WHO

At the WHO, we identify 4,500 public health events with epidemic potential every month. It is imperative that local field epidemiologists are ready to respond as soon as it’s needed. This is being made possible with the WHO’s partnership with TEPHINET and the Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network (GOARN). We highly value our partnership with TEPHINET and GOARN to ensure strong response to outbreaks and ultimately lead the way to achieve global health security.

What is a day in the life of a field epidemiologist like during a pandemic?
Dr. Joaquin Baruch | European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control Field Epidemiology (EPIET) Fellow

A lot of the things we do in disease surveillance is assessing public health interventions. In the case of COVID-19 for example, that means looking at the effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines for hospitalized patients. So a regular day for me right now is using statistical software to analyze hospital data to identify trends and anomalies.

Dr. Charlotte Hammer | European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control Field Epidemiology (EPIET) Fellow

A day on deployment for a field epidemiologist is often intense, fast-paced, and high-stress but it is also incredibly rewarding and culturally enriching. We definitely embrace the “work hard, play hard” mentality.

On my deployment to Papua New Guinea, there wasn’t really a standard day. Sometimes you are in the office doing standard analysis and then other days you are out in the community on investigations and learning about the community and the culture and building very meaningful relationships.

Dr. Andreas Hoefer | European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control Public Health Microbiology (EUPHEM) Fellow

During COVID-19, I have been deployed to Madrid, Spain and have supported Spain’s mitigation of COVID-19. One of my tasks was responding to the first COVID-19 outbreak in

Spain and also an outbreak at a refugee camp in Melilla. Being an epidemiologist during a pandemic has definitely made every day different and fulfilling.

Dr. Bojana Mahmutovic | EPIET Fellow

One of my main jobs in the last year has been to vaccinate people in Croatia with the COVID-19 vaccine. On one hand, it is really relieving to know that we have this tool now,

but on the other hand, when you see people still dying from COVID-19, it can be really really challenging. But every day you just have to remember that each vaccine is a step in the right direction.

How do regional FETP networks build healthier regions?
Dr. Conky Quizon | Executive Director, South Asia Field Epidemiology and Technology Network (SAFETYNET)

In the South Asia region, the regional network has enabled us to conduct disease surveillance across borders. For COVID-19 for example, surveillance has been one of the most important contributions SAFETYNET has provided, ensuring that the coronavirus is tracked as it spreads throughout communities in the region. However, more capacity is needed in this and other outbreak response areas. In particular, more supervisors and mentors are needed throughout the various training programs because they are the ones who really make for quality field epidemiologists.

Dr. Mohannad Al-Nsour | Executive Director, Eastern Mediterranean Public Health Network (EMPHNET)

Across the Eastern Mediterranean region, we have been working with countries to identify gaps and needs. Throughout the pandemic, field epidemiologists have been the major players and pillars in solutions to these gaps and needs. Sufficient numbers of quality field epidemiologists are still needed, though, and while in-person training efforts have been interrupted during the pandemic, EMPHNET has taken COVID-19 training for field epidemiologists online, launching our own learning management system. This means we can continue to build the workforce for the region, closing identified gaps and better addressing needs.

Dr. Franklyn Prieto | Director, Colombia FETP (member program of REDSUR, the South American Field Epidemiology Network)

In the South American region, we’ve found that South-to-South collaboration, with the support of TEPHINET and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has created a stronger network for and between our countries because it has eliminated barriers to interaction between countries. The FETP Network, including regional networks, is a principal pillar to all areas of response to public health emergencies.

Dr. Simon Antara | Director, African Field Epidemiology Network (AFENET)

In the African region, the regional network has been key to deploying epidemiologists to outbreaks around the continent not only for COVID-19, but also for all other outbreaks, including Ebola. We’ve also supported the implementation of vital research on disease outbreaks which have shaped plans for response. Many African countries have their own FETPs but there are still countries without any training capacity or the means to even access field epidemiology capacity development. This gap leaves all of us exposed and vulnerable to outbreaks. The Global Field Epidemiology Roadmap and FETP Enterprise spearheaded by TEPHINET will help us with this.

Dr. Steven Ooi, Head, ASEAN+3 Field Epidemiology Training Network

One of the key ways that the regional network in the Southeast Asian region is improving health is helping to implement public health interventions in communities. Through regional exchange, we are sharing lessons learned and adopting improved approaches. For example, we have been implementing risk assessment and management training workshops throughout the pandemic to help individual countries understand unforeseen risks of public health interventions.

Dr. David Rodriguez, Coordinator, Central American Field Epidemiology Network (REDCEC)

For the Central America region, we have identified training needs in at least two important areas in each country: “One Health” and border health. For example, many Central American countries have challenges with migration and they need to strengthen surveillance at borders to ensure greater cross-national health. On the topic of One Health, we have different public health traits in our region and we need to establish a better surveillance system that is tailored to issues across human, animal and environmental health, such as arboviral diseases. To address this, we have been piloting materials in our workshops from the global border team, and we are planning to do the same with One Health.

TEPHINET is leading an effort to develop a field epidemiology workforce in every country and has  worked with partners to develop a Global Field Epidemiology Roadmap for countries to follow in order to achieve this goal and protect their citizens. What is the importance of having a global effort like this and continuing field epidemiology workforce development?
Dr. Rebecca Martin, Director, Emory Global Health Institute & Co-chair, FETP Enterprise Strategic Leadership Group

As everyone has learned from the COVID-19 pandemic, the public health workforce is the cornerstone of a country’s health security. In April 2020, Robin Taylor Wilson and co-authors published an article titled, “A deficit of more than 250,000 public health workers is no way to fight COVID-19.” In it they reminded us of a 2008 warning by the Association of Schools and Programs in Public Health that the U.S. faced a shortfall of more than 250,000 public health workers by 2020.

Their warning was correct. Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have seen countries around the world face shortfalls in the number of field epidemiologists.

The Global Field Epidemiology Roadmap, launched in October 2019, is a guide to build and strengthen quality and resilient field epidemiologists, and it charts a path to expand partnerships and ensure coordination through high level leadership. This Roadmap is comprised of…key recommendations to achieve a vision that every country has the applied epidemiology capacities needed to protect and promote the health of its own population and to collaborate with others to promote global health. There is much work to be done, but the path is clear…FETPs are critical to accelerate public health workforce development and to achieve global health security…Support to FETPs by country governments, partners, and multilateral organizations has significantly enhanced global health security by building a global workforce with competencies in surveillance and outbreak detection and response. The COVID-19 pandemic and periodic large infectious diseases outbreaks such as Ebola remind us of the need for countries to invest in a trained public health workforce for greater resilience and healthcare detection and response capacity. The first World Field Epidemiology Day marks a global movement to increase awareness of the essential role of field epidemiologists worldwide in protecting the health of populations, reducing health disparities, and advancing global health security.  

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