March 20, 2023

Behavioral Communication Strategies for Global Epidemics

Shailja Sharma

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An outbreak of epidemic diseases can test even the most resilient health system. The recent COVID-19 pandemic illustrated the devastating and far-reaching effects of a disease outbreak in any part of the world. We live in a world that is becoming more interconnected by the day. Despite the advancement of medical science, our world remains vulnerable to epidemics and the possibility of the next global pandemic cannot be ignored. Diseases very rarely completely disappear and there is always an emergence of new ones.

Although it may be impossible to create a pandemic-free world, meticulous preparation and rapid responses can be helpful to prevent, detect, and respond effectively at the early stages of a disease outbreak that presents potential national and international threats.

High quality community engagement for Social and Behavior Change is required for relevant, timely and people- centred interventions in disease outbreaks and epidemics. Community engagement involves directly engaging with local populations in all aspects of decision-making, implementation, and policy through participatory approaches. It also involves improving transparency, accountability, and effective resource allocation through strengthened local capacities, community structures, and local ownership.

Between 9th to 17th March 2023, Strathmore University Business School (SBS), New York University School of Global Public Health and UNICEF, partnered to offer the Behavioral Communication Strategies for Global Epidemics Programme. The SBS campus welcomed participants from all over the world that are involved in addressing health systems challenges. The ultimate goal of the course was for all participants, including students and public health professionals from government and international agencies, and other academic institutions to develop interventions to address diverse health challenges. The participants worked together on teams – guided by mentors – to devise solutions that can easily be implemented to solve pressing real-world health problems.

The course focused on the integration of three public health disciplines for emergency action: epidemiology, behavioural health/intervention research and public health communication to provide students with a knowledge base and foundation of skills to be able to design and implement strategies in disease prevention and response in outbreak situations, with a focus on the re-emergence and emergence of global epidemics and health in humanitarian settings. The course also examined how social and cultural practices, processes, and interactions shape the population distribution of health and disease and produce social inequalities in health, risk management operation, perception of risk, health literacy and community engagement.

The course was led by Dr. Chris Dickey, a Clinical Associate Professor of Global Health at the New York University,  School of Global Public Health. Dr. Dickey is an international development innovator and public health entrepreneur whose work seeks to develop sustainable public health models and to forge bonds between the academic community and practitioners in the field. He has worked in more than 20 countries with the United Nations (UN) and other agencies and co-founded a company that provides clean water and primary care in villages in India.

The course was also led by Dr. Ben Ngoye from Strathmore University Business School, a Senior Lecturer in health, corporate and public sector strategy, decision-making, organisational behaviour, and health policy. Dr. Ngoye has served as the Founding Director of the Institute of Healthcare Management which boasts a robust research pipeline and has overseen the training of hundreds of leaders and managers in the African healthcare space. He has also worked and consulted in many countries in Africa in support of national and regional health interventions, programs, and applications.

Participants also enjoyed interacting with other Faculty Members and experts in Behavioral Communication. Dr. Erma Manoncourt, a Senior Lecturer at NYU and a retired UN official and public health and communication for development (C4D) specialist, has worked for more than twenty years in Sub-Saharan Africa and the Caribbean in the areas of community-based development, nutrition, and health programming. She shared the wealth of her experience with the participants and guided them with their projects.

The course culminated with an exciting competition where the teams were able to present their interventions to a distinguished panel of judges from Academia, the Kenyan Presidential Delivery unit, and UNICEF. The interventions proposed by the eleven teams addressed ongoing challenges in different parts of the globe. Additionally, the multidisciplinary team members from different countries had a chance to learn from each other’s expertise and unique experiences which further enriched their learning experiences.

Furthermore, the participants were able to interact with Kenyan healthcare workers that are currently fighting a cholera outbreak in the country during a field visit. As some of the participants were directly involved in fighting cholera outbreaks in their own countries, the interaction provided opportunities to share best practices and insights.

Global health challenges can be tackled with collaborative and coordinated responses. Pandemics know no borders: international collaboration and networking is vital to counter the threats posed by diseases. The participants of this course have not only forged friendships by sharing this experience, they have also forged connections and partnerships to share knowledge and insights that will help them better serve their communities. By working together to build a global community of experts that are dedicated to reducing suffering and death and promote equity and human dignity, we can shape a better future for our interconnected world.

Article by Shailja Sharma, SBS Faculty Member and Leadership and Career Coach

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