Presence Matters: Navy Medicine’s Emergency Preparedness and Disaster Response in Africa Pt.1

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The overall response effort underscored the national security implications of disaster medicine, infectious disease and global health.

By Dr. Michael Owens, Emergency Department physician, Naval Medical Center Portsmouth and director, Global Emergency Preparedness & Disaster Response Fellowship

The Navy’s response to the Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) epidemic in West Africa – led by U.S. Naval Forces Africa (NAVAF) with support from Naval Medical Center Portsmouth’s (NMCP) Global Emergency Preparedness and Disaster Response Fellowship program – is evidence that presence matters. Support to previous missions in the region had provided Navy Medicine personnel with the skills and insight needed to engage multiple NGO, military, and Liberian agencies during the EVD response.

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These missions ensure that fellowship personnel are fully engaged and ready to respond anytime, anywhere.

NMCP’s Emergency Medicine Department is engaged in formalized global medical training and relief efforts across the African continent, where humanitarian missions have become a key element of nation building. These engagements help to train hundreds of local providers in basic medical care, emergency care, disaster response, and other medical activities.  In return, Navy providers gain insight into local and cultural characteristics that could potentially limit global response efforts. Additionally, these missions ensure that fellowship personnel are fully engaged and ready to respond anytime, anywhere.

At the request of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), protocol assistance for the Monrovia Medical Unit came from NAVAF and recent graduates of NMCP’s fellowship program. The unit was staffed by personnel from the United States Public Health Service (USPHS) who provided intensive specialized care to providers in Liberia.

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By joining the growing network of global health professionals, the Navy’s fellowship program can utilize the experience gained in West Africa to assist similar missions around the world.

The six-week mission included writing multiple Standard Operating Procedures that are now being used as templates by UNICEF and various World Health Organization (WHO) agencies in the region.  Additional responsibilities included training national providers on the first electronic medical record designed for the Ebola outbreak, acting as the pharmacy manager, participating on the incident management system laboratory subcommittee, assuming the role as force protection medical officer, and filling in as a psychological first aid instructor, as well as providing direct medical care in the Ebola Treatment Unit (ETU).  Many of the experienced local providers had already succumbed to the virus early in the outbreak, so these additional duties were critical.

“Sharing medical lessons with providers who operate in a resource-constrained environment was the most professionally rewarding aspect of the mission,” said Cmdr.  Kristie Robson, NMCP fellow. “These are the bonds and cultural lessons that become most valuable in a time of governmental crisis or natural disaster.”

The overall response effort underscored the national security implications of disaster medicine, infectious disease and global health. Now, more so than ever, military medical training must keep pace with this dynamic phenomenon.

“By joining the growing network of global health professionals, the Navy’s fellowship program can utilize the experience gained in West Africa to assist similar missions around the world,” said Capt. Anthony Griffay, NMCP fellow.