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April 7, 2015

Lessons learned from the Ebola outbreak, Part II

Frontline health care technicians receiving kudos as they display their "STOP EBOLA!" T-shirts. Image credit: CDC Public Health Image Library

The recent Ebola outbreak has taught us a few lessons about the importance of public health preparedness and response and the urgency in which it’s needed. We need to make global investments in core public health infrastructures, a robust disease surveillance system and a skilled workforce to track incidents and issue treatment. 

The truth is we could face another public health epidemic much more severe than Ebola, making it imperative that we begin to prepare now.  I was pleased to see that Bill Gates has started to move us in that direction with his article in The New England Journal of Medicine. In “The Next Epidemic—Lessons from Ebola,” Gates draws awareness to the need for a global warning and response system in order to contain the next health epidemic. Current neglected health systems and poor disease surveillance in developing nations made it difficult to manage and prevent the rapid spread of Ebola, and hundreds of cases in West Africa had occurred before the disease was reported or treated.

This is why the work we do here at PHII is so significant. Public health informatics—the effective use of information and technology to improve health—makes it possible to properly retrieve, store and use vital health data that could essentially save lives and help us remain prepared for global health outbreaks. Gates mentioned the importance of establishing rules to make data easily accessible to relevant organizations and agencies. As part of PHII’s methodology, we facilitate that process by defining functional requirements for information systems and working to build a repository of those specifications to share with the public health community.

Training Programs in Epidemiology and Public Health Interventions Network (TEPHINET), another program of our parent organization, The Task Force for Global Health, is also paving the way forward by training field epidemiologists to respond to and contain epidemics like Ebola. TEPHINET strengthens international public health capacities through field-based training programs and links public health professionals to organizations responding to health threats. Through a surveillance training program with CDC, TEPHINET has sent a dozen graduates of its programs to train West African frontline health care workers on Ebola preparedness in Cote d’Ivoire, Guinea Bissau and Senegal in early 2015.

Providing trained human resources and leveraging the power of information are instrumental to building a global response system that will effectively manage future health crises.

David A. Ross, ScD

President/CEO of the Task Force for Global Health, former director of PHII