“Who Ya Gonna Call?”: Database and Social Media Platform Makes “Disease Detectives” Reachable

In 2014, one of the biggest disease outbreaks in years was threatening the health of millions in West Africa and potentially the entire world. As Ebola was claiming more and more lives every week, the international community was struggling to find qualified, French-speaking “disease detectives,” as field epidemiologists are often called, who were capable of responding to the outbreak

When a public health emergency – such as an infectious disease outbreak, natural disaster, or conflict – occurs, field epidemiologists are among the first experts to respond. However, when countries and international emergency response agencies cannot find qualified field epidemiologists who can communicate effectively with the affected community, it creates a major barrier to identifying the source of the outbreak and stopping the disease from spreading.

The Task Force for Global Health’s Training Programs in Epidemiology and Public Health Interventions Network (TEPHINET) has worked with ministries of health in more than 100 countries since 1997 to help strengthen countries’ capacity to train field epidemiologists through in-country Field Epidemiology Training Programs (FETPs). Most FETPs are modeled after what is now considered the first FETP, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Epidemic Intelligence Service (EIS), founded in 1951. 

However, no truly effective method existed at the international level for staying connected with these experts once they had graduated from an FETP. And it was not until the Ebola outbreak in 2014 that organizations like CDC identified this as an urgent priority. That is what spurred the creation of TEPHIConnect, a global database of FETP alumni.

Like your LinkedIn or Facebook social media platforms, on a regular basis, TEPHIConnect is a way for thousands of FETP alumni around the world to share learnings, find career opportunities, pursue continued education, and stay connected to their programs and peers.

For international emergencies, TEPHIConnect provides international outbreak response agencies and ministries of health a quick way to identify and contact field epidemiologists based on specific criteria with just a few clicks. 

“During humanitarian emergencies like displacement due to conflict or natural disasters, public health infrastructure can collapse quickly, and ministries of health can struggle to respond effectively,” said TEPHIConnect Project Manager, Lisandro Torre, MPH. “If the response needs exceed the capacity of the ministry or country, the country can turn to the international community for assistance.”

Launched in 2017, TEPHIConnect made its debut outbreak response assist during the current Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The World Health Organization’s (WHO) Global Outbreak Alert & Response Network (GOARN) reached out to TEPHINET in December 2018 to utilize TEPHIConnect in its search for French-speaking, advanced field epidemiologists (graduates of the two-year FETP track) who could be deployed to the DRC as soon as possible. Today, of the 66 that have been deployed by GOARN to respond to the outbreak, 12 of them were found via TEPHIConnect. 

“TEPHIConnect is the ‘go to’ resource for savvy FETP alumni and residents – the new indispensable tool,” said Carl Reddy, MB.BCh, FCPHM, M.Sc.(Epi), TEPHINET Director. “Not only does it keep them abreast of the latest news and developments, but it also provides them with job and deployment opportunities, learning tools, and instant connectivity with other ears and eyes on the ground.” 

Only FETP graduates are allowed to join the platform and create user profiles. Members sign up through a brief application form where they identify the languages they speak, their skills, areas of expertise, current employer, FETP affiliation, training level, location, and interest in mentoring opportunities. However, all health practitioners can indirectly utilize the database by sending a request to TEPHINET. As the platform continues to grow, the broader vision is for it to strengthen public health collaboration across programs by connecting public health practitioners with disease experts in local public health networks around the world.

The platform was developed in collaboration with another Task Force program, the Public Health Informatics Institute (PHII). “Given that both PHII and TEPHINET fall under the health systems strengthening area of The Task Force, it was truly a culmination of both of our programs’ strengths coming together to provide a much needed service for the TEPHINET community,” said Jimica Tchamako, MPH, Director of PHII’s Requirements Lab. 

PHII used its expertise in business process analysis to help TEPHINET move through the process of defining the information needed and intuitively organizing it so that it could both serve the needs of FETP graduates and disease response agencies like ministries of health and GOARN.

FETP alumni are our primary audience as we continue to grow the platform to meet their post-graduate needs, but our idea is to also  have stronger connections with the major international deployment agencies – Save the Children, CDC, GOARN, United Nations, Médecins Sans Frontières, and the International Committee of the Red Cross – because they’re the ones that deploy field epidemiologists out to the field during an international emergency,” said Torre. 

Looking forward, in addition to increasing the number of FETP graduates and current trainees who are signed up, TEPHINET is eager to build out the continuing education component of the platform and provide further training opportunities for members who want to develop specialized skills. Recently, TEPHINET partnered with CDC and GOARN to develop an emergency response training, advertised through TEPHIConnect, that focuses specifically on field epidemiology during humanitarian emergencies. Now, not only will there be a cadre of FETP graduates from which deploying agencies can select, but within that group, there are these additionally trained graduates who know how to operate in an emergency situation.

“Through TEPHIConnect, we hope to connect alumni to continuing education resources, such as pre-deployment trainings and access to certifications or other courses, in order to increase their relevant qualifications and build a clear career path as a practicing field epidemiologist post-graduation,” said Claire Jennings, MA, TEPHINET Project Manager, leading the program’s learning development process.

TEPHINET is also working to empower regional FETP networks and individual FETPs to utilize TEPHIConnect to track their alumni and create their own geographic- and disease-specific groups within the platform where they can share learnings and experiences. 

“Now, we know TEPHIConnect works for outbreak response. Next, we want to make it more dynamic and useful for alumni,” said Torre. 

Photo caption: On June 12, 2019, Uganda declared an Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) outbreak in the district of Kasese which borders the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). As part of the National Rapid Response Team, the Ugandan FETP organized an infection prevention and control (IPC) training for a burial team to strengthen the burial team that was located at the Ebola Treatment Unit (ETU). Photo courtesy of Brenda Nakazibwe.

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