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Eight nations participate in West African virtual pandemic exercise

Picture of military personnel wearing a face mask looking at a laptop computer U.S. Navy Cmdr. Helen Cann, senior medical officer, participates in a pandemic preparation and response virtual engagement in support of Exercise Obangame Express 2021, March 16, 2021. Obangame Express, conducted by U.S. Naval Forces Africa, is an at-sea maritime exercise designed to improve cooperation among participating nations in order to increase maritime safety and security in the Gulf of Guinea and West African coastal regions (Photo by: U.S. Navy Mass Communications Specialist 3rd Class Trey Fowler).

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Medical experts from six African nations, the United Kingdom and the United States, participated in a Virtual Pandemic Preparation and Response Engagement on March 16, in support of Obangame Express 2021, the largest multinational maritime exercise in Western Africa.

The virtual medical event served as an opportunity for partner nations to discuss infectious disease surveillance and virus outbreak response. Participants included medical leaders from Nigeria, Senegal, Côte D'Ivoire, Gabon, Liberia, and Ghana, along with medical professionals from the U.S. Navy and United Kingdom. These experts exchanged lessons learned from previous epidemics in their respective countries, as well as the unprecedented worldwide COVID-19 pandemic.

"The objective of the engagement, like Obangame Express 21, is to increase regional cooperation and interoperability. This event focused on how we can do that from a medical perspective." said U.S. Navy Lt. Amy Welkie, health security cooperation officer and the event's coordinator. "This allowed us to establish and build partnerships with our medical counterparts across the Gulf of Guinea."

Ghana Armed Forces Capt. Edward Nyarko, public health director at the 37th Military Hospital in Ghana, discussed the role Ghana Armed Forces' played in the national COVID-19 response. Nyarko credits his team's experience with previous outbreaks, such as the Ebola epidemic and prioritizing response workers' mental health for his team's many successes in saving lives in Ghana.

"All of us have one aim, and that is to ensure that we are prepared for any eventuality, especially for disease outbreaks," Nyarko said. "NAMRU-3 has been one of our biggest supporters as they are embedded in [the Noguchi Memorial Institute for Medical Research]."

Nyarko emphasized the importance of prior multinational partnerships with the U.S. Naval Medical Research Unit-No. 3 (NAMRU-3), U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) and others.

Through facilitated discussions, the event highlighted collaborations between militaries and local public health departments and the current goal of recovering previously infected military members.

Service members from the U.S. Navy and Royal Navy presented their experiences with outbreak responses in maritime environments.

"Outbreaks are the same whether you're in a maritime environment or a land environment," said U.S. Navy Cmdr. Brian Legendre, preventive medicine physician with the Navy Medical Corps. Legendre offered a number of strategies such as room ventilation, diagnostic testing, increased cleaning protocols, and isolation of sick patients as suggested tools for combating the spread of illnesses on ships.

Participants voiced their shared challenges during early pandemic response, which included shortages in personal protective equipment and limited accommodations for sick patients at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. In cross-sharing the challenges and solutions, participants assisted each other in improving professional bio-surveillance methods, and refining other techniques learned throughout the pandemic.

"It's been fabulous interacting with everyone and seeing how people have sort of faced similar challenges and come up with similar solutions," said Lt. Col Dan Burns, British Army infectious diseases consultant. "It's been brilliant, and I feel like we've learned a lot from the dialogue."

Exercise Obangame Express 2021, sponsored by AFRICOM and conducted by U.S. Naval Forces Africa, is designed to improve regional cooperation, maritime domain awareness, information-sharing practices, and tactical interdiction expertise to enhance the collective capabilities of Gulf of Guinea and West African nations to counter sea-based illicit activity.

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