When Preparation Meets Opportunity: Cameroon Gets a Jump on Outbreak ResponsePosted on by
When Dr. Aristide Abah stepped off the plane that brought him from Atlanta back to his home in Cameroon, there was no time to waste. An outbreak of H5N1 flu threatened the country, and it was up to Dr. Abah to lead the response.
Fortunately, he was prepared.
Dr. Abah had just spent four months at CDC headquarters as part of CDC’s Public Health Emergency Management Fellowship, which invites public health experts from all over the world to learn how to organize an emergency response in their country.
A deadly threat
In Cameroon, H5N1 was raging in poultry, putting people at risk. The virus can spread to people who come into contact with infected birds, and the result can be devastating. An estimated 60% of people who get the disease, die.
A swarm of activity took place around Cameroon’s response: culling chickens, contact tracing, delivering Tamiflu to people who needed it, providing personal protective equipment (PPE) to workers, and more. The country faced challenges; with over 500 sets of PPE needed each day, animal health workers ran out and had to repurpose supplies that were never used for the 2014 Ebola outbreak.
If they were to stop the deadly virus from spreading to humans, the country needed to act fast and be efficient. For Dr. Abah – and for Cameroon’s public health emergency operations center – it was time to put some newfound knowledge to the test.
From fellowship to field
Dr. Abah returned home from his fellowship on a Sunday night. On Tuesday, he stepped in as Incident Manager for the response. On Wednesday, he walked around the room and put nameplates at every desk.
This simple action served two important purposes.
The first was to make sure everyone knew their designated roles. In an emergency, we use an organizational structure called an Incident Management System to assign specific roles and responsibilities to every person. This ensures that everyone knows exactly what they and others are doing.
Nameplates also meant that everyone had an assigned seat, so that people who worked on the same tasks sat near each other. When information has to travel fast, proximity is priceless.
After he organized the people, Dr. Abah organized their time. He set up a system that gave everyone an allotted number of minutes to speak at meetings. He even appointed a timekeeper to help stay on track. “As you may or may not know,” joked Kerre Avery, a CDC Emergency Management Specialist who works closely with Cameroon, “it’s the French custom to talk a lot.”
Dr. Abah also improved the way information traveled, both within the response and outside it. He adopted the CDC template for daily update slides and situation reports in the EOC, and added a communications team to the incident management structure to help get critical messages out to the public.
For Dr. Abah, these were the opening steps of a wider plan to respond to the crisis. During his fellowship, he had learned the critical importance of planning and organization. “For me, the planning was key,” he said. “I now know that we can’t do anything without a plan.”
Knowledge can’t wait
When Dr. Abah first learned of the H5N1 outbreak, he had not yet completed his fellowship, but he knew that the lessons he was learning would help his colleagues back home. He set up an internet-based platform so they could all see and benefit from the lessons. He also reached out with new ideas: “I wanted to speak to higher management,” he said. “I told them they had to have an Incident Manager [in the EOC].”
Cameroon was already getting better and better at responding to health threats. A year ago, it took the country eight weeks to activate their public health emergency operations center in response to a cholera outbreak. Several months later, when Lassa fever erupted, they had reduced their response time to a week. By the time H5N1 appeared in local poultry, it took the country less than 24 hours to activate the PHEOC.
Cameroon’s recent improvements – including their investment in sending Dr. Abah to the fellowship – are all part of a worldwide effort to better prevent, detect, and respond to public health emergencies. And their efforts in preparedness are paying off: during the latest outbreak, there were zero transmissions of H5N1 to humans.
The lessons the Public Health Emergency Management Fellowship teaches are designed to be applied to virtually any crisis situation. Since the 2013 inaugural class, CDC has hosted 39 fellows from 25 countries, giving them important education they can take back and use in their home countries.
While in the U.S., Dr. Abah was particularly inspired by a visit to meet Dr. Nicole Lurie, the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response in Washington, D.C. Her advice to him summarizes perhaps the most important lessons from the fellowship.
“I keep in my memories three words of advice from Dr. Lurie.” Dr. Abah recalls. “Never give up, stay connected, and get better.”
The Public Health Emergency Management Fellowship is implemented by CDC’s Division of Emergency Operations. The program helps countries meet the goals of the Global Health Security Agenda, including having an emergency operations center that can respond within two hours of a public health emergency.