UK public health rapid support teams – a new commitment to coping

Picture of Dr. Ed Newman next to a quote that reads "Providing support is not a one-way conversation – we rely on learning from our partners and leveraging their expertise to make a sustainable impact."

The UK-Public Health Rapid Support Team is a key international partner in infectious disease outbreak detection, prevention, preparedness and response; surgery; and capacity building.

The team partners with low- and middle-income countries to support an effective response to outbreaks before they develop into global health emergencies, and is able to deploy teams of public health experts in various technical disciplines to outbreak areas within 48 hours.

It is an innovative partnership between the UK Health Security Agency and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, funded by UK Aid from the UK Department of Health and Social Care.

New director Dr Ed Newman reflects on the history of the UK Public Health Rapid Support Team, its relevance in a post-Covid world and his plans for its future.

from the beginning

Since its establishment in 2016, the UK Public Health Rapid Support Team (UK-PHRST) has worked tirelessly to provide effective support to low and middle income countries (LMICs) in response to outbreaks. UK-PHRST, which brings together a talented and multidisciplinary team of public health experts across disciplines and backgrounds, can be deployed to affected areas within 48 hours.

The UK-PHRST was formed in the wake of the 2014-2015 West Africa Ebola outbreak to help low- and middle-income countries prepare for, detect and respond to outbreaks before they develop into a global health emergency.

It’s fair to say that COVID-19 has proven important to the team’s mandate – viruses can and do move unpredictably and at great speed. Infectious diseases are not limited by borders and no one is safe until we are all safe.

Our Strategy

I am honored and excited to be the Director of UK-PHRST at a time when there is much work to be done. Having spent much of my career involved in outbreak response and global public health, this is a real highlight for me and a great opportunity to draw on my previous experience in leadership and as a virologist.

UK-PHRST has had many successes over the past six years, and I want us to build on and expand these. As our new strategic framework outlines, there are still opportunities to improve the impact of our deployment. This includes reviewing and improving how we deploy so we can better support our partners and respond to multiple emergencies at once.

From a research perspective, we want to identify key priorities that are increasingly co-developed with partners and strengthen our research capacity in the lower-middle income countries we work with.

We will also look to formalize and expand the capacity-building work we do with our partners so that we can make meaningful and sustainable improvements to the public health emergency and response workforce in partner organizations.

To achieve all this, we will work closely with our partners around the world to identify their needs and how we can best support them in a long-term sustainable way.

2022 deployment

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has become the biggest immediate health threat in the past year.

In 2021, the team deployed an epidemiologist and microbiologist through the Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network (GOARN) under the World Health Organization (WHO) to Cambodia to help improve the country’s testing and surveillance capacity for Omicron variants.

Our work in the past few months, however, neither began nor ended with the pandemic. In June 2022, UK-PHRST deployed to support operations in response to yellow fever outbreaks in various West, Central and East African countries, including a six-week deployment of a case management specialist to Burkina Faso to improve the effectiveness and quality of clinical care. .

The breadth of our outbreak response support, including Lassa fever, meningitis, pneumonic and bubonic plague, and acute watery diarrhea, has emphasized over the years that epidemics do not wait for epidemics to end. In addition to COVID-19, infectious diseases threaten global health security for LMIC populations, which is reflected in the diversity the team has delivered to date. Recently, epidemiologists were deployed to Slovakia and the Czech Republic to help prevent and prepare for COVID-19 and other public health challenges that pose a threat as significant numbers of people have fled the war in Ukraine to neighboring countries.

the future

As I write this message, we have an infection prevention control specialist from UK-PHRST supporting GOARN and the ongoing Ebola outbreak response, while other members of our team are ready to deploy as requested.

This latest outbreak of Ebola in Uganda and our response to it provides valuable insight into how we can provide rapid support at short notice when requested while continuing a full program of ongoing work in/with other countries eligible for UK support. Our strategy is underpinned by three principles: learning, partnership and impact. Expanding our horizons in these three areas allows us to increase global capacity and ensure a more coordinated international response to global outbreaks that affect everyone’s health and well-being.

The UK Public Health Rapid Support Team will drive these ambitions forward by building and maintaining equitable partnerships with the low and middle income countries we work with.

Providing support is not a one-way conversation – we rely on learning from our partners and using their expertise to create a sustainable impact that prevents communicable diseases that can have such a devastating impact on our lives and livelihoods, so its Improving health protection is all of us.

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