November 16, 2016

Research, Recovery, Resiliency: Implications in the Field of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene

Written by Hunter Isgrig, Crowd360 Digital Campaign Producer, FHI 360

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Photo: Leanne Gray/FHI 360

This week in Atlanta, Georgia, the American Society for Tropical Medicine and Hygiene (ASTMH) convened their 65th annual meeting of experts and implementers to explore the latest research and lessons learned from the field.  A common theme interwoven throughout the conference was that of crisis and conflict. Today, we are observing health systems in West Africa recover from the 2014 Ebola crisis, we are maneuvering around Boko Haram forces to bring life-saving medicines to displaced communities in Cameroon, and we are observing a global health epidemic unfold as the international refugee crisis continues to grow.

The Ebola crisis of 2014 paralyzed the already weak health systems of affected West African countries. In some cases, the crisis halted progress on country-wide efforts to eradicate neglected tropical diseases (NTDs). For Sierra Leone, all mass drug administrations (MDAs) were required to cease distribution in order to respond to the epidemic. However, with the support of FHI 360’s END in Africa project, progress was restored in 2015 and the health systems of Sierra Leone have made a tremendous recovery. To date, Sierra Leone is back on track towards eradicating NTDs.

In northern Cameroon, seven health districts have been displaced by the armed forces of Boko Haram, preventing thousands of families from receiving life-saving NTD vaccinations. Yet in the heat of conflict, health workers have formulated a strategy to literally sneak around rebel forces and provide medications to help people in need. In Monday’s session, “Terrorism, Conflict, Epidemics and Acts of God: The Impact of the Unpredictable on NTD Programs,” we learned how this strategy is being used to work within these areas of conflict. This “hit and run” approach requires healthcare workers to form alliances with local leadership and armed security, and operate with complete incognito communications. Once this happens, unmarked and armed caravans transport supplies, local leaders and health care workers facilitate a pop-up MDA within a community and then the health workers return to safety in armed caravans. This success is not only pushing progress towards eliminating NTDs but also proving there are innovative ways for service delivery to occur in fragile states.

Photo: Leanne Gray/FHI 360

Photo: Leanne Gray/FHI 360

A cornerstone of the conference was an interactive exhibit sponsored by ASTMH and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) illustrating the current refugee crisis and coinciding global health implications. Research has proven cases of disease appearing in geographic areas that could only result from migration. For example, multiple cases of measles were identified within Burmese populations originating from Malaysia, and in Somali refugees from Kenya. The installation is a call for partnership to further understand the role of science and research in refugee health. It is also a call for additional research behind health screening, vaccination and other treatments needed to tame the threat of global health epidemics.

Photo: Leanne Gray/FHI 360

Photo: Leanne Gray/FHI 360

The 65th ASTHM Annual Meeting celebrated the latest breakthroughs, discoveries and innovations in the realm of tropical medicine and hygiene. With 65.3 million refugees in the world today, now more than ever there is a demand for partnership, evidence-based interventions, and locally-driven strategies to advance the health of all. Crisis and conflict may always be a threat to global health, but with rigorous research, recovery and resiliency will only improve.

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