Emerging (and re-emerging) infectious diseases have rapidly increased in frequency, duration, and distribution in the past five decades. This includes outbreaks caused by influenza, vector-borne, haemorrhagic fevers, and other highly infectious pathogens such as severe acute respiratory syndrome, Middle East respiratory syndrome and the current coronavirus disease (COVID-19). The impact of these diseases is exacerbated by poor access to healthcare, weak and overburdened health systems, poor health literacy, and a limited capacity to prevent, recognise and/or respond to these disease threats.
These issues are particularly prevalent in resource constrained settings, and especially in vulnerable and fragile settings where acute or protracted crises from droughts, famine, conflict/ civil unrest, and population displacement is present, along with low immunisation and high malnutrition rates. These environments often lack access to clean water and sanitation and have inadequate infection prevention and control (IPC) which promotes the spread of microbes and facilitates disease transmission both within and outside clinical facilities.
Further contributing to the added burden of disease, reliable access to effective treatment in resource constrained settings is often undermined by drug and other supply shortages, and adequate testing facilities to ensure correct doses and treatments are being prescribed and administered. This critical issue is contributing to the emerging threat of antimicrobial resistance- the ability of bacteria, parasites, viruses, and fungi to resist antibiotics, antivirals and antimalarials. Being unable to prevent such infections will eventually mean being unable to treat common infections such as pneumonia and tuberculosis which are already classified as major global health security threats.
The incorrect administration of medication is also problematic when it comes to the treatment of animal health conditions, and the increasingly close contact of humans with animals and their natural environments provides opportunities for these diseases to pass between the two. The recognition of the interconnection between people, animals, plants, and their shared environment has resulted in the One Health collaborative, multisectoral and transdisciplinary approach that works at local, regional, national, and global levels to address with the goal of achieving optimal health outcomes for all.
To prevent and respond to these threats, and ensure the correct treatments are being administered, they must first be detected. Strong health systems are therefore intrinsically linked to functioning surveillance systems. Established passive and active disease surveillance systems, testing laboratories and expertise are pivotal in this process, and resource-constrained settings are often ill equipped to undertake such activities.
Finally, health systems are just as reliant on their infrastructure as they are on ensuring effective networks and communication between clinicians, laboratory, other health workers, public and animal health organisations and the populations they work to protect and treat. Partnerships and collaborations between these individuals, communities and organisations is necessary for both short-and long-term health system success and sustainability to ensure diseases are reported, effective treatments identified, and that there is a good acceptance of responses.
As such, the Health Emergencies Working Group aims to:
- Strengthen the capacity of key stakeholders, hospitals, human health laboratories, institutes and more broadly health systems, to prevent, mitigate and respond to disease outbreaks and threats.
- Provide technical assistance and support to governments, NGOs, and other partners to improve their resilience, preparedness and response to outbreaks and emergencies.
- Build networks and collaborations with other organizations and stakeholders to enhance global health security.
- Conduct research on infectious diseases and public health emergencies to inform policy and practice and ensure these are inclusive and consider the particular needs and vulnerabilities of marginalised groups/people.
Recognising the pivotal role resilient health systems play in preventing, managing, and mitigating all disease threats, including AMR, and preventing and responding to pandemics, the Health Emergencies Working Group focuses on supporting activities for maximum efficiency and effective impact, while considering contexts, system limitations and available resources.
Our aim is to collaboratively enhance existing local strengths by working alongside regional institutions and key stakeholders, apply learning from previous responses, and fill evidence gaps so decisions are better informed and more equitable. This includes promoting a One Health framework, considering sub-national needs and primary healthcare capacities, and ensuring we integrate understandings of community priorities and inequities in the approach.
The Health Emergencies Working Group technical experts support healthcare providers and policymakers to improve guidelines and antibiotic use, strengthen surveillance systems, improve infection prevention, and control measures in healthcare settings and develop community engagement and awareness around risk behaviour.
They also look to prioritise pandemic preparedness and response work by focusing on communicable disease control by improving ability to prevent, predict, detect, and respond to health threats. This is done through the development of capacity for pragmatic prioritisation of limited resources for response to epidemics, referencing WHO Benchmarks for IHR Capacities in technical areas such as surveillance and emergency preparedness. Ensuring data is used for outbreak-related decision-making, while pragmatically considering system limitations and optimising routine use of information on local epidemiology, risks, and constraints, enhances potential to detect and prioritise disease threats.
Key partner organisations include:
- Alfred Health/ Monash University Department of Infectious Diseases
- Therapeutic Guidelines Australia
- Beyond Essential Systems
- Pacific Region Infectious Diseases Association
- The Australian Government Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s Indo-Pacific Centre for Health Security
- The University of Melbourne Faculty of Veterinary and Agricultural Sciences
- Pacific Pathology Training Centre
- Massey University
- WHO Collaborating Centre for Surveillance of AMR
Strengthening health systems, including building capacity for pandemic preparedness and response and for the mitigation of antimicrobial resistance, has significant benefits for communities. This includes improved access to essential health services, enhanced ability to detect, respond to, and manage pandemics, and increased community resilience to prevent or mitigate the impact of future pandemics. Additionally, mitigating antimicrobial resistance (AMR) by promoting rational use of antimicrobial agents and improving infection prevention and control measures, will reduce the threat of drug-resistant pathogens and health risks for both human and animals.
By addressing AMR and improving pandemic preparedness and response, health system strengthening can help ensure equitable access to healthcare for all members of the community, including marginalised populations who are often disproportionately affected by infectious diseases. In turn, this can lead to better health outcomes and reduced economic and social impacts from pandemics and AMR.
Meet the working group. Together, we are translating research into better health, for all.