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It's a small world after all with rise in global health engagements

Dr. Mansour Niang (left), a Senegalese gynecologist, and Dr. Anthony Donaldson, a major in the Vermont Air National Guard, perform surgery during a joint medical readiness training exercise at a hospital in Dakar, Senegal. (U.S. Army photo by Maj. Simon Flake) Dr. Mansour Niang (left), a Senegalese gynecologist, and Dr. Anthony Donaldson, a major in the Vermont Air National Guard, perform surgery during a joint medical readiness training exercise at a hospital in Dakar, Senegal. (U.S. Army photo by Maj. Simon Flake)

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American military medics and nurses attend a training conference with their German counterparts. U.S. military technicians travel to Senegal to share their expertise in inspecting, maintaining, and repairing medical equipment. A Liberian soldier graduates from the U.S. military’s preventive medicine specialist program.

All of these efforts are part of global health engagement, also known as GHE. These Department of Defense activities are growing in importance, especially since troops must be ready to deploy on a moment’s notice to almost anywhere in the world for combat, disaster response, and humanitarian assistance.

“Global health engagement also protects our troops,” ensuring they don’t catch infectious diseases and thus, can meet the readiness mission, said Tom McCaffery, acting assistant secretary of Defense for Health Affairs. And it protects the health of U.S. civilians when troops come home, he said.

Still, McCaffery said, the benefits of GHE are more encompassing.

“Global health activities also build interoperability so we can work more effectively with the armed forces of our partner nations,” he said. “And they enhance security cooperation so we can establish and maintain strong relationships around the world.”

The DoD has a long history of global health engagement. In 1900, Brig. Gen. George Miller Sternberg, the Army surgeon general, appointed a commission to investigate the cause and prevention of yellow fever. More Spanish-American War troops had died from it and other infectious diseases than from combat.

More than 100 years later, medical scientists from the Army and Navy played a key role during the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa. After setting up a diagnostic laboratory at the Liberian Institute for Biomedical Research, they tested blood samples for the often-fatal virus, as well as trained institute staff members to perform this work.

“Health is a critical part of how our military engages around the world,” said Navy Capt. Carlos Williams, director of the Office of Global Health Engagement for the Navy’s Bureau of Medicine and Surgery in Falls Church, Virginia.. “A disease threat anywhere could be a disease threat everywhere. We see global health engagement as many things – from health force protection and readiness for the services and our partners, to regional stability and security for our combatant commands.”

Another example of GHE in action is the DoD Laboratory Network. The consortium of several facilities includes locations in the United States as well as overseas, such as in Thailand, Egypt, and Peru. The labs conduct routine and emerging disease surveillance and response missions through partnerships with local ministries of agriculture, defense, health, and with academia. Early detection and response efforts addressed the H1N1 virus, which was first detected in San Diego; and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, which was first reported in Saudi Arabia.

“One trip is not what GHE is about,” Williams said. “It’s about persistent, sustained engagement to build capacity and bring about positive change. That means we have people working with the country over a period of time.”

The United States is also a member of the Global Health Security Agenda, a growing partnership of more than 60 nations working to prevent, detect, and respond to infectious disease threats and elevate global health security as a worldwide priority. The GHSA also calls for providing humanitarian assistance after natural disasters, collaborating in research and development efforts, and monitoring global health concerns.

“The bottom line is that worldwide health security is an essential part of U.S. national security,” McCaffery said. “Global health engagements reduce risks to our own armed forces while fostering the mission capability of our partner nations’ forces. Together, we can continue working effectively to defend global interests.”

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