Information sharing key to biosurveillance threats in the Americas
By Dialogo April 21, 2014
From April 1-4, the U.S. Southern Command’s (SOUTHCOM) Policy and Strategic Initiatives Division brought together senior public health, military and civilian experts from 12 nations in Central America, South America, the Caribbean and the United States to discuss the challenges of preparing effectively to address a biological event.
The 2014 Biosurveillance Challenges in the Americas Workshop was co-hosted by the U.S. Department of Defense’s (DoD) Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA), which serves as the DoD’s official Combat Support Agency for countering weapon of mass destruction; and the William J. Perry Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies, the National Defense University’s pre-eminent academic institution for teaching, research, and outreach on defense and security issues affecting the Americas, both of which had representatives participating at the four-day event.
The objective behind such an event was to promote the idea that coordinating disease surveillance activities across the Central, South American and Caribbean region has long-term benefits that reach far. According to the event organizers, coordinating national plans and programs can yield benefits in the ability to leverage regional strengths and capabilities while gaining an understanding of limitations, therefore enhancing early recognition of emerging disease threats and improving response effectiveness.
“From Alaska to Tierra del Fuego, there is a common vegetable and animal route that we share, so we have to organize a regional entity to establish common lines of communication efficiently,” said Dr. Elsa Villarino, from the CDC in Mexico, during her working group conclusion.
Lecturers like Dr. Aileen Marty, professor of Infectious Diseases at the Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine at Florida International University, who set the scene by talking about the disease risk environment in the Americas, brought to light the principal disease risks in the Western Hemisphere, including infectious diseases and zoonoses, those infectious diseases that are transmitted between species from animals other than humans to humans or vice-versa, such as Tuberculosis, Malaria, Dengue and Chagas disease. Dr. Marty said, “Biosurveillance efforts must be both domestic and international, as well as cooperative because health threats, especially communicable diseases, may cross borders quickly and threaten people throughout the region, and potentially worldwide.”
In addition to simply identifying which are the diseases that can be communicated throughout our society, however, the workshop delved into topics like the operational challenges that arise from maintaining situational awareness among partners who notify the CDC; bio-safety and bio-security best practices from a U.S. public health laboratory perspective; an assessment of how risks and vulnerabilities become threats; meeting biosurveillance international health regulations; using biosurveillance to transform healthcare; crisis management and strategic communication; specific country cases and a coordinated and cooperative way ahead.
“By bringing together regional experts we develop relationships, networks, and trust that enable us to form cooperative biosurveillance efforts that facilitate the vital sharing of information. The meetings also enable us to share ideas, tools, methodologies, and spark new ideas that help us all streamline our efforts to meet our biosurveillance obligations under the International Health Regulations,” said Dr. Marty.
Steve Wetzel, director of SOUTHCOM’s Policy and Plans Directorate, was taken aback by seeing that the workshop brought together such a diverse group of “professionals that are so knowledgeable in their areas of expertise, that the question now is how to continue to promote and project the ideas that resulted from this [workshop] out to the public, in order to implement laws and processes for the future.”
In total, more than 27 experts from Belize, Canada, Colombia, Chile, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Panama, Peru and the United States brought their experience and the unique perspectives of diverse agencies, including the Center for Disease Control (CDC), the World Health Organization, the Pan-American Health Organization, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Mexican Department of Health’s Diagnostic and Epidemiological Reference Institute, the U.S. Armed Forces Health Surveillance Center, the Mexican Center for Disaster Prevention, the Pacific Disaster Center, the Center for Animal Health and Food Safety, the New York State Department of Health and the Computer Sciences Corporation. But the common theme throughout the varied public health prevention and response-related discussions was that sharing information is vital for prevention, as well as involving policy and decision makers from the region as a whole into these discussions.
Dawn Brown, Chief of the Building Partnerships Division at the DTRA, concluded, “The scientific reason we should all care about public health threats is the amazing speed at which things are changing. Effectively identifying those threats and managing [the information] collectively is very important.”
Dr. Marty agreed: “Rapid recognition of a health threat followed by prompt sharing of reliable information about emerging or expanding health threats, facilitates rapid action to minimize, halt, and if possible, end a health threat. Reducing health threats strengthens all of our nations and helps bring prosperity and security to our region.”
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