American University of Beirut

Elevating public health practice: Addressing global epidemics through communication strategies

“It's much more than a course or a training. This was a life experience for me. I learned new and different approaches of public health practice," said one of the seventy-plus participants commenting about the Behavioral Communication Strategies for Global Epidemics Course.

This pioneering initiative was organized by the Center for Public Health Practice (CPHP) at the Faculty of Health Sciences (FHS) at the American University of Beirut (AUB), in partnership with New York University's College for Global Public Health, and with support from UNICEF Headquarters.

“This course focuses on the integration of three public health disciplines for emergency action: epidemiology, behavioral 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 and humanitarian situations," explained Dr. Chris Dickey, professor at NYU-GPH.

From March 16 to 23, more than 70 students and professionals from NYU, UNICEF, FHS alumni, and officials from ministries of health in the Arab region gathered at AUB for an eight-day training course where they developed a complex model of disease in the context of geography, culture, economics, epidemiology, human physiology, environmental science, and policy.

During this unique training, participants coming from 26 different countries discussed how social and cultural practices, processes, and interactions shape the population distribution of health and disease and produce social inequalities in health. Participants were also provided with an overview of theories of behavior change and public health communication. Sessions covered areas such as risk management operation, perception of risk, health literacy, and community engagement, with the aim to enable participants to critically evaluate the information in the field and articulate strengths and weaknesses of these strategies.

“The exchange between students and practitioners is what makes this course unique as it allows for rich discussions and input from the field as well as from academia," stated Instructor of Public Health Practice at the CPHP Martine Najem.

In addition to the theoretical component, the course included field visits to informal refugee settlements in the Beqaa region which was an eye opener to participants as it helped familiarize them with the context of the humanitarian crisis in general, and in Lebanon and the region in particular," stated Najem. “This trip is essential for participants to better understand the value of human centered design in responding to epidemics," she added.

The overall approach is to include both case studies and skills building especially with regard to the use of communication to engage communities in both a prevention as well as an acute response mode. There was a focus on platforms for information dissemination and community engagement including innovation and the use of technologies.

By the end of the course students were able to understand the theoretical, operational, and methodological parameters needed to communicate and change behaviors to mitigate the spread of communicable diseases, as demonstrated by participants who were distributed into ten different projects who created, designed and evaluated communication programs to help addressing health epidemics like Ebola virus disease, dengue, Zika, cholera, measles, and polio, throughout various regions in the world.

The training was concluded by a closing ceremony featuring speeches form representatives of NYU, UNICEF, FHS, and CPHP, and the attendance of officials from different ministries in Lebanon, including public health, education and higher education, and social affairs. All ten teams presented their projects drawing detailed communication strategies and programs frameworks analyzing different components of the matter in question and suggesting a clear roadmap to address it.

After the speeches and presentations, the winning team was announced and participants received their certificates.

“We would like to see this course as a first step in a long-term partnership with NYU and UNICEF, and we aim, as FHS, to have it on a more regular basis," stated FHS Dean Iman Nuwayhid. 

 Click HERE to view the photos from the event.

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