What Nigeria’s Disease Detectives Are Contributing to World Field Epidemiology Day

From Dr. Oladipo Ogunbode
Competent field epidemiologists are needed more than ever worldwide.

This is mainly caused by the emergence of emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases, the increasing burden of non-communicable diseases, antimicrobial resistance and other public health threats.

For 12 years, the Nigeria Field Epidemiology Training Program (NFETP) has developed the field epidemiological capacity to quickly identify, respond and contain public health emergencies for Nigeria’s health security. The NFETP was originally founded by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and is now funded by the Nigeria Center for Disease Control (NCDC) coordinated under the NCDC Establishment Act of 2018.

In this role, NCDC receives additional support from the US CDC, the World Bank and other partners in the implementation of the NFETP.

The program trains top, intermediate and advanced level health workers who will be equipped with the skills to become disease detectives.

Although little is known about the NFETP, its contribution to health security and public health activities in Nigeria is significant.

To date, over 300 field epidemiologists have been trained by NFETP and responded to over 300 disease outbreaks. Perhaps a key example is the role that NFETP played in responding to the 2014 West African Ebola outbreak in Nigeria and in assisting other West African countries.

The trainees on the program were responsible for outbreak investigation, contact tracing, and the development and operation of disease monitoring systems, among other things.

More recently, NFETP trainees have played key roles in Nigeria’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, including leading National and State-level Public Health Emergency Operations Centers (PHEOC), coordinating the establishment of public health laboratories, providing support of health response activities in ports, risk communication among others.

Between major outbreaks and pandemics, NFETP trainees contribute to the continuous development of public health systems and skills at the local, state, and national levels.

For decades, NFETP trainees supported government efforts that led to polio eradication in Nigeria through the National Stop Transmission of Polio program.

You have also led the design and implementation of population-based serosurveys, including the National HIV / AIDS Indicator Impact Survey in 2019 and the COVID-19 Serosurvey in 2020 and 2021.

In all ministries of health, disease control programs, and other public health agencies, NFETP trainees contribute to greater health security. In the past two years, NCDC has started implementing activities to strengthen the NFETP.

Prior to 2020, Nigeria had never implemented the middle portion of the program, which was aimed at mid-career health workers with public health roles.

In 2020, the first middle school cohort began with 15 trainees from health and agriculture ministries, ministries and agencies across the country.

In addition, the Frontline program ran for two years and trained disease control and registration officers in 17 states in Nigeria. However, in the face of several parallel similar programs, it was decided to expand the curriculum and adapt it to the Nigerian context and a new program – Integrated Training for Surveillance Officers in Nigeria (ITSON) – was developed.

ITSON is putting together several similar training programs developed by global health institutions to provide more effective training for Nigerian health workers.

With new and recurring communicable diseases known to increase their global impact, the role of local epidemiologists cannot be overstated.

On-site epidemiologists are needed to understand why diseases occur, where they occur, and to develop interventions to prevent, detect and respond to them. Nigeria’s FETP graduates have continued to rise to leadership positions where they make another contribution to public health.

By training skilled epidemiologists to manage public health incidents on the ground and support public health systems at the national level, health security will be improved.

The commemoration of the First World Field Epidemiology Day (WFED) on September 7, 2021 provides an opportunity to celebrate the achievements of Nigerian interns in the field of field epidemiology and NFETP’s contribution to national and global health security. It also provides an opportunity to highlight the need for further support and investment for the NCDC as the agency coordinates the implementation of the NFETP.

The knowledge, skills and expertise of NFETP trainees are critical to national and global health security.

The ratio of field epidemiologists per population in Nigeria is 3 per 1 million, a far cry from the global goal of at least one trained epidemiologist per 200,000 people in each country. The NCDC continues to be committed to the implementation of interventions that enable the further expansion of NFETP and better use of the trainees.

In the age of globalization, the emergence of new pathogens, the emergence of major outbreaks and pandemics, and the increasing global impact of known diseases, skilled field epidemiologists are needed more than ever.

This begins with increased support for the Nigeria Field Epidemiology Training Program.

Dr. Oladipo Ogunbode, Assistant Director and NFETP (Nigeria Field Epidemiology Training Program) coordinator at NCDC writes from Abuja.

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