Civil Wars, Natural Disasters, Disease Outbreaks and Drought — In Class

In 2009, faculty member David Townes, M.D., MPH, DTM&H, was investigating an outbreak along the Malawi-Mozambique border.
Photo courtesy of Dr. Townes

Any time there’s a natural disaster, there is a concern about disease outbreak,” says David Townes, M.D., MPH, DTM&H. In order to detect and respond to an outbreak, the World Health Organization (WHO), with assistance from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), has developed an early warning and response network: EWARN.

Townes, a UW associate professor of medicine in the Division of Emergency Medicine and an adjunct associate professor in the Department of Global Health, was involved in the groundwork for EWARN in two countries: in Syria, where it detected the 2013 polio outbreak, and in Haiti in 2010, after the earthquake, where it was used for malaria surveillance. In each location, he worked closely with local partners to collect data so trends could be monitored.

“If you’re doing disease surveillance, where do you go to get your information? You have to go to where the patients are,” says Townes. “I’ve responded to everything from the Haiti earthquake, to the civil war in Syria, to the Ebola outbreak, to the famine in the Horn of Africa — sort of the full gamut, from civil war, to natural disaster, to disease outbreak, to drought.”

Townes wears many hats related to humanitarian emergencies. He helps coordinate public response for the CDC, and he spends the majority of his time in a technical advisory role for the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA) at the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), advising the U.S. government and others how best to respond to international disasters.

But as much as Townes wants to be on the ground responding to emergencies, he also enjoys the classroom — and he’s part of a growing trend in the professionalization of humanitarian response. “It’s inspiring to talk to young people who want to look at this as a career and as a real academic and professional discipline rather than simply as a way to volunteer for a little while,” he says.

At the University of Washington, Townes helps teach Health and Complex Humanitarian Emergencies in conjunction with the CDC. It’s important for students to grasp the interplay among USAID/OFDA, the CDC, non-governmental organizations or NGOs, the U.S. Department of State, the U.S. Department of Defense and United Nations organizations. “To really be effective in humanitarian work,” says Townes, “you can’t work in isolation.”

The other thing that students and the public should know, says Townes, is that humanitarian emergencies are complex. The right answer or decision isn’t always clear. The Ebola crisis provides an example, in that it can be difficult to distinguish those suffering from Ebola from those suffering from malaria. In response, the WHO changed its recommendation on malaria treatment, and now many more people in West Africa are being treated for malaria.

The reasoning behind this change was complex and controversial, and it raises some important questions, Townes says. “How much do we let something like Ebola drive the overall public health response? And what potential role does this play in the development of resistance to malaria?” he asks. “Like most complex issues, I think the single right answer probably doesn’t exist, and the best answer is somewhere in the middle.”

Today, Townes is working to develop more programming around humanitarian emergencies for the University of Washington’s Department of Global Health and Division of Emergency Medicine.

“Given the strength of the institution, I think we’re in a nice position to do that,” Townes says. “There are a lot of people interested in developing our expertise in conjunction with CDC. I think we have real potential here to make an impact.”

In July 2015, Townes will teach Health in Complex Humanitarian Emergencies, part of the Department of Global Health Summer Institute, at the University of Washington. Register or learn more.

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