Cultivating Leadership for Humanitarian Response: New Opportunities for Field Epidemiologists

Cultivating Leadership for Humanitarian Response: New Opportunities for Field Epidemiologists

Participants from Georgia, Azerbaijan, Ukraine, and Armenia working on the SIMEX exercise. Photo by CDC

Russia’s war in Ukraine has resulted in the displacement of approximately 20% of Ukraine’s population across Europe. As the conflict persists, a well-trained and well-equipped public health workforce is needed to respond swiftly and effectively to the rising number of refugees and internally displaced people.  

Between June and October 2022, 75 Field Epidemiology Training Program (FETP) residents and graduates have participated in a six-day humanitarian emergencies and epidemiology training, which aims to strengthen humanitarian emergency response capacity across the region. To date, trainings have been held in Ukraine, Georgia, and most recently in Moldova, and included participants from Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia.  

This training aims to position FETP as a resource for leaders and emergency responders by establishing a roster of ready-to-deploy field epidemiologists from diverse backgrounds and experiences, and with shared language and customs from across the region.  

Thanks to the training…I have been able to coordinate a range of measures more effectively and efficiently for immunization of refugee children against measles, for epidemiological surveillance in settlements and temporary accommodation sites, and for carrying out anti-epidemic measures in cases of infectious diseases. This knowledge has enabled me to make a substantial contribution to the health and safety of our region,” stated Dr. Nicolai Gaisan, Epidemiologist for the Moldova National Agency for Public Health.

The training consists of instructive and practical elements, including three days of competency-based training and three days of simulation exercises (SIMEX), needs assessment and survey missions, and establishing Early Warning Alert and Response (EWAR) systems. The exercises gave trainees the chance to apply classroom concepts to hands-on learning that are delivered in partnership with the World Health Organization (WHO), the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the Training Programs in Epidemiology and Public Health Interventions Network (TEPHINET).

Public Health Response to Humanitarian Emergencies

Dr. Boris Pavlin of the World Health Emergencies Programme and cofounder of the humanitarian emergencies and epidemiology training course noted, “one of the things that makes this training so impactful is that it is not just theoretical; these people are responding to refugees or to their own internally displaced people or affected populations, so it makes it very emotional and real.” 

Multiple factors can result in a humanitarian emergency, including forced migration, disease outbreaks, environmental degradation, climate-related events, limited access to healthcare, and prolonged conflict. In these complex environments, the risk of infectious disease outbreaks is amplified. This training provides FETP residents and alumni with the skills required to support humanitarian relief efforts.  

In 2019, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported 120 million people with an urgent need for humanitarian aid and protection. However, today, the absence of standardized trainings to strengthen the public health competencies and capabilities necessary for a humanitarian response deployment persist. This course, based on the FETP “learning by doing” methodology, offers a starting point for the institutionalization of these capacities and proven teaching methods for epidemiological approaches for humanitarian emergencies.