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Ebola highlights health lessons

February 20, 2015

The importance of local health departments is one of many lessons to be learnt from the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, according to a new report. The analysis, published in the Journal of Public Health Management and Practice, said that these smaller medical settings have an essential role in responding to public health outbreaks.

The report from representatives at the National Association of County and City Health Officials (NACCHO) states that a number of lessons can be learned from the crisis.

The authors write: "Local health departments, within the United States and abroad, are the first to respond to infectious disease threats, and as such, play a critical role in achieving the Global Health Security Agenda."

In their analysis, the team write a number of ways that local health departments can respond to any future threats, based on how their reacted to the Ebola problem. 

Interpreting and implementing federal guidelines, is just one of the ways that they can help address a wider problem. The report argues that when the first domestic cases of Ebola were reported, it was the local health departments that went to NACCHO to help them access and implement federal guidance. 

Such urgent issues were directly linked to sharps safety as personal protective equipment (PPE) was an important part of limiting the risk of any future cases, as was appropriate handling of medical waste.

However, conflicts, both "perceived and real" between national and local guidelines caused a lot of confusion over isolation and quarantine of travellers coming from West Africa.

A quick response was also warranted by health departments when it came to collaborating with others to form a coordinated response. This, according to the report, was especially true when it came to identifying and managing possible Ebola cases. This emphasises the importance of healthcare coalitions between public and private health organisations in the community in planning, training, and responding to public health emergencies.

This also involved recording and delivering timely risk assessment information, with local health departments needing to quickly access resources about Ebola, which often included having to get materials in appropriate languages and reading levels to control panic and the spread of misinformation. 

"While the number of cases were low, the level of response necessary to mitigate both perceived and actual risk to the public was extremely high," the NACCHO authors wrote.

The NACCHO authors say the Ebola experience demonstrates the need for "sustainable preparedness" and resources to support local responses to global health threats. In the same vein, local health departments, and consistency or clarity between state and federal guidelines, can be important when it comes to promoting sharps safety and needlestick injury prevention. 

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