Using Mobile Technology for Post-disaster Enhanced Surveillance in Fiji

News release

WHO/ R.Baker

SUVA, 19 MARCH, 2016 – For the first time in the Pacific island countries, WHO is using mobile technology as part of a post-disaster Early Warning Alert and Response System (EWARS) following Tropical Cyclone Winston. WHO supported the Ministry of Health and Medical Services (MoHMS) in establishing 35 early warning surveillance sites across Fiji to monitor for infectious disease outbreaks.

WHO support was provided by a team of field epidemiologists from the Division of Pacific Technical Support in Fiji, the Lao PDR Country Office, the Western Pacific Regional Office in Philippines and via the Global Outbreak Alert Response Network (GOARN) coordinated by headquarters in Switzerland. GOARN is a global partnership of over 200 technical institutions and networks established in 2000 by WHO that provides coordinated technical support to countries, including deploying teams and experts during outbreaks and after disasters.

The risk of outbreaks has been high since the powerful cyclone battered the Pacific Island nation on 20-21 February. Early-warning surveillance is a priority for MoHMS and WHO, and an essential tool to protect the public from communicable diseases.

“Responding effectively to an outbreak depends on detecting them as early as possible, so public health authorities can act quickly to contain the spread of disease,” said Dr Liu Yunguo, WHO Representative in Fiji. “Using mobile technology will help health facilities report illnesses and events faster, resulting in earlier investigations into their cause and a quicker response – ultimately helping authorities reduce the risk of outbreaks following this disaster.”

The Hon. Minister for Health and Medical Services in Fiji Mr Jone Usamate said that this system will no doubt benefit the Ministry in addressing and responding effectively to any surge in diseases.

“We are grateful to the support received from WHO and our partners during this critical time,” said Minister Usamate. “I also urge our people to clean up their surroundings and destroy mosquito breeding places while at the same time practice good hygiene.”

The mobile technology collects the information from all 35 surveillance sites, rapidly analyses the data to detect unusual increases in disease, and sends alerts to medical officers and public health staff to warn of potential disease outbreaks. The MoHMS has rapid response teams to quickly investigate alerts generated by the early warning system.

“It’s a very good reporting system,” said Dr Avnit Kumar, the medical officer in charge at the Keiyasi Health Centre in Western Division, where some cases of diarrhoeal disease in children have been reported since the cyclone. “We can inform early, and investigation and early interventions will help prevent outbreaks.”

Increases in communicable diseases after cyclones and other extreme weather events are common for several reasons:

  • destruction of infrastructure can reduce people’s access to clean water and sanitation services and lead to outbreaks of illness, including diarrhoea, and typhoid fever;
  • flooding can lead to outbreaks of leptospirosis;
  • standing water and debris can become breeding grounds for mosquitos that can carry dengue, chikungunya, Zika virus and others;
  • destruction of homes leads to over-crowded and cramped living conditions that can facilitate the spread of infectious diseases, including scabies and other skin conditions as well as influenza and other respiratory infections; and
  • interruptions to routine immunization can lead to outbreaks of vaccine-preventable illnesses in children, such as measles.

Tropical Cyclone Winston resulted in the deaths of 44 people, over 125 injured, damage to over 40% of the country’s health facilities, and left many without shelter, food, safe water and power. MoHMS is leading the health response with support from WHO and a number of international partners, coordinated by the Fiji Health and Nutrition Cluster.

The early detection and response to disease outbreaks is strengthened by the implementation of EWARS early warning surveillance. This system will minimize the risk of communicable disease outbreaks among the Fijian population recovering from Tropical Cyclone Winston.

For more information, please contact:

Mr Ryan Baker
Risk Communications Consultant
Division of Pacific Technical Support, Suva, Fiji
Phone: +679 717 6042

Ms Joy Rivaca Caminade
Technical Officer (Risk Communications)
Division of Health Security and Emergencies
Email: t