The Latest Developments in Global Disease Detection, Prevention and Response: Q&A with TEPHINET’s New Director of Strategic and Technical Initiatives

A global scientific conference in Panama City, Panama next month will showcase the latest developments in global disease detection, prevention and response from more than 100 countries, including cutting-edge work to contain the monkeypox outbreak and the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Task Force’s Training Programs in Epidemiology and Public Health Interventions Network (TEPHINET) engages national Field Epidemiology Training Programs (FETPs) that are working to protect all people from public health threats. The 11th TEPHINET conference, starting September 4, offers FETP trainees and graduates a leading global platform to demonstrate their work and share information that can be used to inform public health in other countries.

To understand how this conference and TEPHINET help strengthen health systems, we spoke with TEPHINET’s Director of Strategic and Technical Initiatives Dr. George Shakarishvili, who recently joined the team and previously served as the Global Fund Focal Point for Health System Strengthening. Originally from the country of Georgia and based in Geneva, Shakarishvili has worked in national health systems, with international agencies like the World Bank, and with non-governmental institutions, leading health programming and evaluation efforts. 

As you start this new leadership role in TEPHINET, what do you hope to accomplish?

TEPHINET supports field epidemiology training, but field epidemiology is part of broader pandemic preparedness and response. Epidemiologists never work alone in the field; they always work with others, for example with supply-chain specialists who manage logistics to deliver vaccines, medications and other commodities based on the data produced by epidemiologists, or public health program managers who design data-driven interventions etc.

Therefore, pandemic preparedness is a multidisciplinary effort so my thinking is that there is an opportunity to position TEPHINET and The Task Force as a global capacity building hub for broader pandemic preparedness, not only for field epidemiology. We have all the necessary components which are required  for this – institutional structures and partnerships at the global, regional and country levels, significant experience in managing FETP – a global  capacity building enterprise and most importantly a reputation of effective and efficient partner and leader. 

Another key piece will be supporting the “FETP Enterprise,” which is the global partnership of all actors in development, implementation, and evaluation of FETPs in more than 100 countries. That partnership has a multi-year road map and I look forward to supporting the Enterprise’s Strategic Leadership Group and several technical working groups on the implementation of it.

On the technical part, I will be working with the team in Atlanta, our regional networks and country FETP programs to improve the programmatic quality and optimize the performance measurement framework, specifically the monitoring and evaluation frameworks.

Why is the upcoming TEPHINET conference in Panama City important?

There are several reasons:

  1. The global conference is the premier opportunity for FETP trainees and fellows to present their work to the broader community and also to meet with each other, exchange knowledge, and learn from each other. So one objective of this conference is knowledge management. For example, field epidemiologists from different countries will share their experiences in how they managed COVID-19 outbreaks, so this will be the opportunity for others to hear about those experiences and learn from them. 
  2. Another objective of the global conference is to bring together the FETP community to see where we are implementing the Enterprise’s road map and the TEPHINET strategy. There are many people working on different pieces of each of these, so it is important to periodically bring everyone together to see how we have been progressing, particularly because the landscape is very rapidly changing and many new opportunities arise.
  3. Another objective is to look forward to see what can be done for improving the effectiveness and efficiency of the Enterprise and TEPHINET both as institutional entities. We need to see whether the current management systems and business processes and structure are the most optimal for addressing the challenges that we are facing today due to the rapidly evolving landscape.
  4. And lastly, we come together to have fun. The conference gives us an opportunity to add some positive emotions for all of us, especially given the intensity of the last few years for many through the pandemic.

What’s the importance of Field Epidemiology Training Programs and having trained field epidemiologists around the world?

A useful way to answer this question is to draw a parallel between field epidemiologists in public health and the role of a doctor in a clinical setting. A doctor diagnoses a patient and an epidemiologist diagnoses a public health problem. If there is an outbreak or an issue that affects a population’s health, then it is an epidemiologist’s job to diagnose the underlying cause of the problem and to work with other specialists of the public health system on designing  interventions which would address the problem, so epidemiologists are paramount to national and global health. 

Epidemiologists are multidisciplinary because they work in many different domains of public health such as noncommunicable diseases, infectious disease outbreaks, animal-borne diseases to name a few. The FETPs are the mechanisms through which countries can strengthen the technical capacity of this essential role. In many countries, epidemiologists are housed in national public health institutes or national centers for disease control. Those are the two main entities by which countries institutionalize technical epidemiological capacity. TEPHINET supports these institutions to strengthen their institutional capacities–for example, by working with WHO and other partners on developing the minimum competency standards for epidemiologists or by helping them to improve the quality of training programs.

Header photo: Local health officers conducted the active case finding for COVID-19 among migrant construction workers in an outbreak of COVID-19 at a construction camp in Nakhon Ratchasima, Thailand, in October 2021. Photo courtesy of Krittinan Boonrumpai, Thailand FETP.

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