Prevent, detect, respond: Building epidemic preparedness worldwide

March 11, 2020 by Kelly Huffman

Long before the rise of COVID-19, PATH was already working with our partners to strengthen health systems and support safer, more secure communities in the face of health emergencies.

Microscope woman. Photo credit PATH/Georgina Goodwin

Efficient, high-quality laboratories ensure rapid and reliable diagnostics, detection, tracking, and recording pathogens for a complete picture of disease burden. Photo: PATH

The current COVID-19 pandemic isn’t the first epidemic the world has seen, and it won’t be the last. That’s why PATH partners with healthcare leaders in more than 28 countries to fortify global health security. Our shared mission: strengthen health systems, identify disease threats, and prevent outbreaks from reaching a critical state.

Today, those efforts are paying off. From Senegal to Vietnam and beyond, ministries of health have activated stronger diagnostic networks, improved resource allocation, and launched robust information systems.

“Especially in African countries, we are seeing a rapid expansion of diagnostic capacity and expertise as the COVID-19 epidemic grows,” says Dr. Linda Venczel, head of global health security for PATH. “It’s a very different world than five years ago.”

3 pillars of global health security

Global health security is built upon three pillars: prevention, detection, and response. Dr. Venczel and her team work on all three, strengthening health systems around the world through advocacy and policy, technical expertise, and in-country collaboration.

Pillar #1: Prevent

Strong surveillance keeps a close and consistent watch on the diseases that threaten communities. With a robust surveillance system, health teams can rapidly detect and report threats, efficiently monitor trends, and produce data that inform prompt decisions, aiming to catch illness early and prevent outbreaks.

In the wake of the 2014 Ebola outbreak, PATH supported the Democratic Republic of the Congo to build and equip a national Emergency Operations Center. The EOC—the hub from which teams coordinate their efforts against any disease epidemic—bolstered the country’s ability to identify new Ebola outbreaks and prevent them from spreading.

With the EOC now activated in response to the COVID-19 threat, DRC is better positioned to monitor for and prevent the disease.

Pillar #2: Detect

Efficient, high-quality laboratories ensure rapid and reliable diagnostics, detection, tracking, and recording pathogens for a complete picture of disease burden. PATH helps countries improve the quality, timeliness, and efficiency of their laboratories, and of their entire diagnostic networks.

In Senegal, for instance, PATH performed a mapping exercise that inventoried all the laboratories in the country’s public and major private sector. Our goal: identify the gaps in people, supplies, and repairs needed for a robust diagnostic system. The mapping exercise was a GPS-coordinated effort, which supported efficient resource allocation to all labs.

The work PATH has done strengthening the diagnostic systems in Senegal and other countries will be central to surveillance of COVID-19.

Pillar #3: Respond

Integrated data management applies findings from surveillance and diagnostics to highlight areas of concern, ensure information flow throughout the health system, and rapidly trigger informed response.

In Vietnam, where PATH has worked alongside leaders and local communities since 1980, we are part of a comprehensive response to COVID-19. We have partnered with the CDC, Vietnam’s General Department of Preventive Medicine, and its Ministry of Health to develop data visualization dashboards and mapping tools. Armed with real-time information, decision-makers can identify clusters of cases and develop a targeted response.

Taking the long view

These are just a few examples of PATH projects and partnerships making the world safer. We do this work year in and year out because it is never a question of “if” there will be an outbreak; it is only a question of “when.” Whether the next one takes hold in Wuhan, Milan, or Seattle, we must be ready.