WHO tests preparedness for disease outbreak

Wednesday June 12 2019

Doctors conduct an exercise simulating the transfer and handling of a suspected Ebola virus disease patient in Hong Kong on September 2, 2014. . PHOTO | XAUME OLLEROS | AFP

By Elizabeth Merab

If the worst were to happen, and a disease outbreak were to occur on your doorstep, what would it look like?

Disease outbreaks have hit many countries, leaving millions of lives lost and a lot more people left vulnerable and at the mercy of the next catastrophe.


Since 2014, the world has grappled with the worst Ebola outbreak in West Africa. More recently, the continent has further faced other disease outbreaks such as yellow fever in Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo, and cholera in South Sudan, Ethiopia, Uganda and Tanzania.

It is estimated that the Ebola outbreak not only led to loss of over 10,000 lives, but also tested the capacity and readiness of affected countries’ ability to respond to outbreaks.

If the above examples are anything to go by, epidemics are becoming more and more unpredictable and what begins as a rumour or isolated con-firmed case can multiply, leading to many cases and deaths.


But you do not have to imagine the consequences of such outcomes since scientists have already crunched those numbers for you.

Experiences from these outbreaks led the World Health Organisation to design a new and robust approach to increase preparedness for any future outbreaks. Today, the WHO has an emergency roster of staff and non-staff who can be deployed anywhere in world with 48 hours to respond to any disease outbreak or public health event of international concern.

The EAC region will be carrying out a simulation exercise to test the region’s health system to respond to similar outbreaks. The simulation began on June 11, even as one case of Ebola was confirmed in Uganda, and will run until June 14.

The acting head of the health department at the East African Community Secretariat in Arusha Dr Michael Katende, said that this field simulation exercise will assess the level of preparedness in responding to outbreaks and the available methods of response.

“In 2015, the health ministers, upon assessing the level of preparedness to respond to outbreaks, directed EAC secretariat to organise a simulation to identify our strengths and weaknesses in our response mechanisms. Once we identify the weaknesses, we should be in a position to take action to improve so that we are ready for any eventuality to avoid high impact,” Dr Katende noted.


A field simulation exercise (also known as FSX) is an interactive tech-nique of evaluating risk preparedness. It simulates a situation under real conditions which could occur at any time.

Examples would be a natural disaster, a response to a road accident or an outbreak of an infectious disease. An FSX tests the status of preparedness and capability of an organisation or other entity to respond to a simulated situation allowing participants and operational staff to identify strengths and gaps in capacities and can facilitate practical corrective actions at all levels (national, regional, community and global).

“During the Ebola outbreak, WHO learnt that there were difficulties in managing an outbreak of such magnitude and from that experience, a number of policies was formulated to improve our response. The simulation therefore aims to build and enhance the necessary capacities to minimise the risk of an incident becoming a crisis, and in the event of an emergency, improve the ability of teams to correctly assess and respond,” explained Allan Bell, a WHO specialist consultant.

This particular exercise will involve about 250 people, with majority coming from Kenya and Tanzania, the two actively involved partner states.

According to Dr Katende, the three-day exercise will test their contingency plans and related standard operating procedures. The Secretariat will also test its regional risk and crisis communication strategy and whether these procedures are put into practice.

Under the one health approach, the EAC is receiving support from German development agency GIZ to the tune of $1 million to build the region’s capacity to prepare for such health emergencies, under the banner of pandemic preparedness.

Further, under the German Development Bank financed “EAC Network of Public Health Reference Laboratories for Communicable Diseases” project, the region will test the ability of mobile laboratories to react quickly to an outbreak.

The exercise will test Rift Valley fever, a disease that affects both animals and people.

“In the region, we are faced with many zoonotic diseases, therefore the multidisciplinary approach to contain the disease is crucial. The simulation is going to implement the one health approach, which will bring all the stakeholders, to contain the problem from where it starts,” said Dr David Balikowa, EAC’s senior livestock officer.

According to Dr Balikowa, assessing the risk of Rift Valley fever is essential for effective prevention and detection of the disease.

The fever affects and kills humans and animals. It is a caused by a virus spread by blood sucking mosquitoes, and can be transmitted to those individuals who are in close contact with contaminated blood, such as veterinarians, butchers, or animal handlers.

Since last year, the epidemic has been reported in four countries in East Africa, with Kenya and Tanzania being the worst hit.

The viral disease has so far caused considerable human and animal deaths and has potential to have a huge negative impact on the livestock trade, as well as the livelihoods of thousands of communities that rely on the health of their sheep, goat, cattle and camels.


“RVF is a classic transboundary disease capable of spreading beyond farm level, district, regional and international borders. To this end, we are looking at those affected by any zoonotic diseases, like people who deal with animal health, both domestic and wild, environment health workers, traders, tourism sector,” added Dr Balikowa.

The EAC Sectoral Council of Ministers of Health is the highest ranking health decision-making body in the region.

Last year, experts in animal health and public health from 11 countries developed a regional plan of action against the Rift Valley fever outbreak in East Africa at a high-level meeting in Tanzania.

Uganda is recognised and has been rewarded for its immense support to other countries during outbreaks, especially Ebola outbreaks. It built rich experience from previous outbreaks of Ebola, Marburg, meningitis, yellow fever and others that created a tested and committed cadre of health workers able to respond quickly to an outbreak.

These health workers have been deployed to different countries and have been very instrumental in containing outbreaks.

The field simulation exercise planned for Namanga aims to enhance the status of preparedness for, and response to infectious disease outbreaks in the EAC region with the focus on Kenya and Tanzania.

In the past two years, the East Africa has experienced cases of Ebola, Rift Valley, Marburg and Crimean Congo Haemorrhagic fevers, cholera, Polio, a plague, and the current Ebola outbreak in the DR Congo.