NPHI Investments Helped Colombia Prepare for Zika

Preparing a country’s public health system to respond to an emergency means getting the right structure and people in place to take action against imminent health threats. This is the ongoing work of Colombia’s national public health institute, Instituto Nacional de Salud (INS), which is helping it respond to the threat of Zika with its strengthened public health system.

CDC and the International Association of National Public Health Institutes (IANPHI) have worked to strengthen INS since 2013. IANPHI is a network of public health agencies similar to CDC around the globe, which acts as a “hive mind” – they share their experiences and expertise to bring fresh ideas for public health program improvements, says CDC medical epidemiologist and Colombia Project Lead Ezra Barzilay.

Rice field in Colombia's Tolima Department. Photo: Neil Palmer, CAIT

Rice field in Colombia's Tolima . Photo: Neil Palmer, CAIT

According to Dr. Maritza Adegnis Gonzalez, technical advisor to the INS director, CDC and IANPHI support played a critical role in INS’ preparation and response to Zika. “CDC and IANPHI experts assisted INS in refining its public health strategies and provided funding to purchase supplies and mobilize staff,” says CDC Public Health Analyst Dennis Jarvis.

CDC’s Central American Global Disease Detection regional office, located in Guatemala, has provided extensive support toward NPHI development, including laboratory capacity building. For one and one-half years, Drs. Andres Espinosa-Bode and Leonard F. (Len) Peruski guided lab improvement activities. When the Zika response began, labs were able to deal with the numerous specimens, says IANPHI Senior Advisor for Public Health Practice Dr. Sue Binder. Other lab improvements, such as quality controls and biosafety cabinets, created a safer environment for lab workers who potentially could be exposed to the infectious disease.

During CDC’s first phase of work with INS, the investment focused on building overall health system capacity. The following areas listed below are the selected priority improvement targets:

  • Strengthening INS surveillance capacity—using data more effectively to identify risk factors,
  • Developing a public health observatory,
  • Enhancing laboratory safety—setting quality control standards and investing in biosafety cabinets and lab supplies,
  • Building capacity to control vector-borne disease,
  • Training staff in risk communications, and
  • Improving the INS website.
Work group in Colombia planning for years two and three of the project. Individuals photographed from left to right: Ms. May Bibiana Osorio, Dr. Martha Luc%26iacute;a Osp%26iacute;na, Dr. Maritza Gonzalez, Dr. Andres Espinosa-Bode.

Work group in Colombia planning for years two and three of the project. Individuals photographed from left to right: Ms. May Bibiana Osorio, Dr. Martha Lucía Ospína, Dr. Maritza Gonzalez, Dr. Andres Espinosa-Bode.

INS met its targeted goals in time to manage the Zika response, especially in the areas of research and surveillance. As Colombia continues to fight against the threat of Zika, INS is providing innovative research and following cases of pregnant women with Zika.

Another priority for CDC and IANPHI is to develop a strong organizational culture and leadership within NPHIs, which is an approach INS leadership values. According to Dr. Barzilay, INS Director Dr. Marta Lucia Ospina cares for people and puts them first by ensuring that staff are trained and have the resources they need to succeed. She also guarantees scientists have the intellectual autonomy, or the freedom, to do their work as they see fit.

With the first phase of the CDC and IANPHI investment in INS complete, the team can look back to see huge improvements. As the second phase begins, INS envisions continuing to build on these public health improvements, while maintaining transparency, good communication, and customer service.