FETP Alumni from Southern and Eastern Africa Trained on Epidemiology in Humanitarian Emergencies

According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), in 2020, nearly 160 million people will need humanitarian assistance and protection—the largest number in decades. Following current trends, OCHA projects this figure to grow to more than 200 million people by 2022.

Conflict, climate change, environmental degradation, forced migration, and the reduced access to health services resulting from such crises are catalysts for disease outbreaks. Field epidemiologists are increasingly likely to respond to outbreaks linked to these broader emergencies. While traditionally, field epidemiology training programs (FETPs) provide training on investigating infectious disease outbreaks and other acute public health events, few FETPs specifically provide training in humanitarian emergency contexts. TEPHINET and its partners are hoping to change that.

The World Health Organization (WHO), U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), African Field Epidemiology Network (AFENET) and TEPHINET recently collaborated on developing and piloting a weeklong training course on “Epidemiology in Humanitarian Emergencies” for FETP graduates from emergency-prone countries in eastern and southern Africa. The course took place in Kampala, Uganda, from November 11-16, 2019 and trained 19 FETP graduates from Ethiopia, Kenya, Mozambique, South Africa, Tanzania, Zimbabwe and Uganda.

“Our hope for the long term is that training in the context of humanitarian emergencies becomes incorporated into the core FETP curriculum,” says Lisandro Torre, a project manager with TEPHINET who served as one of the course facilitators*.

“One of the things that makes epidemiology tricky in those contexts is that your data are dirtier, so to speak, and everything must be done quickly,” says Torre. “You don’t have time for perfection and must make decisions with imperfect data. How do you make the best of that? What tools do you use?”

To that end, the course focused on building the following core competencies through four days of classroom training and two days of realistic simulation:

  • Public health surveillance in emergencies, with a focus on early warning, health information systems, and strengthening existing communicable disease surveillance systems during emergencies
  • Response to acute public health events associated with emergencies, with review of public health priorities such as water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH), nutrition, vaccine preventable and vector-borne diseases
  • Humanitarian information management, including data collection, collation, analysis and reporting, with a focus on the unique information requirements in humanitarian emergencies, as distinct from acute public health events

The simulation portion of the training included role-playing exercises to expose participants to potential real-life scenarios they may encounter while working in the context of a humanitarian emergency. Facilitators split the participants into teams and assigned the teams specific tasks to complete. Over the course of their work, the teams interacted with actors playing various roles such as internally displaced persons, local NGO workers, and district medical officers.

“As we work with partners around the world to identify trained epidemiologists for emergency response, we want to ensure that they’re well-prepared,” says Dr. Farah Husain of the CDC Emergency Response and Recovery Branch, one of the course facilitators. “Through this training, we are building up the roster of epidemiologists who are trained in humanitarian and emergency epidemiology for future deployment.”

Now, WHO is evaluating this pilot course for future scalability. Dr. Boris Pavlin, one of the course facilitators, says, “The world is changing–and field epidemiology training needs to change with it. FETP fellows and graduates are the backbone of the global epidemiology workforce. This course prepares them to serve in the increasingly complex environments we see today, and that’s something WHO really needs.”

“This project has been an exciting new model of collaboration among TEPHINET, AFENET, CDC and WHO,” says Torre. “We hope to conduct a second course in a different region during the first half of 2020.”

Interested FETP graduates should keep an eye on TEPHIConnect, TEPHINET’s platform for FETP alumni, for an announcement about recruitment for the next course.

*TEPHINET would like to acknowledge the facilitators for this course:

  • From AFENET: Simon Antara, Herbert Kazoora, Ben Masiira
  • From CDC: Farah Husain
  • From WHO: Boris Pavlin, Melissa Attias
  • From TEPHINET: Lisandro Torre, Claire Jennings, Mahamadou Dao


Photos from the training course on epidemiology in humanitarian emergencies held from November 11-16, 2019, in Kampala, Uganda. For more photos, see Flickr.