America has the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC); France boasts Medicine Sans Frontières (MSF).
Now, Australia has the Australian Response Masters of Applied Epidemiology or ARM, which was officially launched in Melbourne on Monday.
Epidemiology is the science that studies the patterns, causes, and effects of health and diseases. A cornerstone of public health, it informs policy decisions by governments and evidence-based medical practice by identifying risk factors for disease and targets for preventive healthcare.
Literally a ‘flying squad’ of public health specialists, ARM brings together Australia’s best and brightest medical professionals.
Its members include doctors, nurses, veterinarians, scientists, and public health officials from around Australia.
At the request of the World Health Organization and other international bodies, teams of Australian volunteers will rush to disasters and help prevent or limit the spread of infectious disease.
A group of Australian specialist epidemiologists has already shown its value, with several experts sent to respond to Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines in 2013.
Preventing epidemics post-Haiyan
They played a key role monitoring community’s health and stopping epidemic-prone disease from spreading and killing more people.
“The aftermath of a major disaster can often be a dangerous time,” said the group’s co-chair, Dr Martyn Kirk from the Australian National University’s (ANU) National Centre for Epidemiology and Public Health.
“People who have suffered one disaster can find themselves caught up in a disease outbreak with disastrous consequences, particularly if water, food and health supplies have been disrupted.”
Since the 2010 Haiti earthquake, an ongoing outbreak of cholera has killed more than 8500 people and sickened an estimated 700,000.
Dr Kirk said the new network provides a ready supply of highly qualified professionals to volunteer with early detection and response to epidemics of diseases such as cholera, hepatitis, influenza, malaria, and dengue.
Australia benefits from program
Their work will benefit Australia, too. Diseases such as hepatitis, influenza, typhoid and dengue are increasingly imported by travellers visiting destinations where they occur, creating the potential for outbreaks in local communities.
The ARM network was founded by graduates of Masters of Applied Epidemiology (MAE) program at the ANU. It is a collaboration between the ANU, Sydney’s University of New South Wales (UNSW), and Melbourne’s Burnet Institute, which also fund the program.
The MAE program accepts around 10 scholars a year, who provide a surge capacity to Australian governments in the event of a public health emergency.
The scholars attend regular sessions over two years at ANU. Those sent to disasters must complete United Nations’ (UN) security training.
Co-Director Raina MacIntyre, Professor of Infectious Diseases Epidemiology and Head of the School of Public Health and Community Medicine at UNSW, said the ARM filled a critical gap in Australia’s surge response capacity for infectious diseases outbreaks that cross state and international borders.
“We have many skilled professionals who are willing to deploy in emergencies, but previously had no avenue to do so,” Professor MacIntyre said.
“As Australians we are in a good position to provide leadership in regional infectious disease control, and ARM shows that this can be achieved with goodwill and the in-kind support of the three institutions.”
Rapid response to emergencies
Co-Director Dr Tony Stewart, Burnet Institute Senior Research Fellow and current Chairperson of the Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network’s Steering Committee, said the international community relies heavily on well organised networks to maintain a cohort of trained and experienced professionals who can respond at short notice to large public health emergencies.
“Through ARM, we are now able to better match the people with the appropriate skills with requests for assistance from a range of sources,” Dr Stewart said.
Associate Professor Linda Selvey, Director of Epidemiology and Biostatistics in the School of Public Health at Perth’s Curtin University, went to Manila to help with the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan.
Dr Selvey was in charge of monitoring for outbreaks of diseases such as dengue fever and measles following the disaster, and coordinating a rapid response to any signs of disease.
“This disaster could easily have been much worse for many people,” Dr Selvey said.
“The WHO and Department of Health put a lot of work in to prevention of disease, with vaccination programs and mosquito control efforts, particularly in areas where water and sanitation was affected.”
The actions helped limit the impact of measles and dengue outbreaks.
“They were spotted early,” she said.
“Given the size of the disaster and the number of people involved, the Philippines authorities managed it very well and it was remarkable what could be achieved to prevent a wider disaster.”
Read more about the background and aims of ARM.