MSc Epidemiology student Emaline Laney shares her account of an outbreak simulation exercise, conducted as part of the Epidemiology and Control of Communicable Diseases module.
I looked around the table. The seven of us, representing six countries – South Africa, Cameroon, Italy, England, Wales and USA – included clinicians, NGO-workers, biomedical scientists, and soon-to-be epidemiologists. We came together that afternoon with one task at hand: to investigate an ongoing outbreak that struck Niolo Jattaba, a rural village in Guinea. According to our briefing, many villagers fell ill with watery diarrhea and/or vomiting, leading to three deaths. The cases took place after the funeral of a resident, Bertha Mboge, a few days earlier. In just over forty-eight hours, we aimed to identify the source of infection and the vehicle of transmission, with hopes of preventing further spread. Aside from the fact that this was part of our Epidemiology and Control of Communicable Diseases course, and the outbreak, village and villagers fictional, it wouldn’t be too far of a stretch to imagine what an outbreak team might look and feel like based on ours.
While skills can be taught in a classroom, experience can enrich and hone those skills. To that end, this exercise allowed us to take skills from class to practice. We designed a survey, piloted the survey, and implemented the survey, interviewing forty-five individuals altogether. The interviewees were mainly students, given a character script for the purpose of the outbreak simulation. Walking into the canteen, students buzzed every which way, running to find a certain interviewee or their teammate to share some newfound information. It was as if the whole School pressed pause. Used to the yearly occurrence, professors knew what was going on – several even participated by staging as residents of Niolo Jattaba.
For some students, this was the first time carrying out interviews or entering and cleaning data, essential skills in this field. By compiling our calculated attack rates, interview data, the village map, and even simulated lab results, we pieced together the outbreak. As the sun began to set on the Friday afternoon, we rushed to complete the outbreak report and policy recommendations for the local and national government of Guinea.
The School has, I believe, a unique ethos to higher education. Recognizing the School’s role in training tomorrow’s global public health practitioners, it strikes a balance between theory and application. Of course, a simulation can never capture the real world; however, the exercise highlighted the importance of teamwork and collaboration and helped prepare us for the moment when we leave the doors of the School into the communities in which we hope to serve.