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UN working with Iran to build emergency medical teams to halt epidemic outbreaks

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Remember those movies where an international epidemic breaks out and the international community “surges” a medical response team instantly to solve the problem?

Well, as we know from hard experience, including the recent Ebola pandemic in West Africa, this rarely occurs in real life.

In reality, responses to epidemics and disasters are often too slow, usually uncoordinated, and do not deliver the response to the places in greatest need.

That is why, back in 2015, the World Health Organization (WHO) launched a system which will ensure quality standards for emergency medical teams (EMTs) in emergency and outbreak settings.  To date over 75 teams have completed the process and are fully classified.  

Group photo of the participants

By the end of 2017, the number of such teams is expected to rise to 200.  This will make available to the international community, a potential emergency workforce of over 100,000 people.

Iran has indicated it wants to be part of such a system.  Both to have WHO-accredited EMTs within the country and to be able to supply EMTs in the region in response to potential emergencies and outbreaks, should they occur in neighboring countries.

As part of this process, this week, the WHO – in coordination with Iranian Ministry of Health and Medical Education and the Iranian Red Crescent Society – organized a training workshop in Tehran to provide guidance on EMT operations, logistics and coordination.  The overall aim is to provide an opportunity for key country health and emergency service leaders and members of Iran’s EMT task force to strengthen national capacity.

Speaking at the concluding ceremony today, UN Resident Coordinator, Gary Lewis said: “It is a sad reality that in medical responses involving direct patient care, ‘good intentions’ are never enough.  EMTs need to be properly trained.  They must have the right equipment and supplies.  This will enable them to work in a safe manner, rather than arriving uncoordinated, not self-sufficient and – instead of helping – becoming a burden on the community affected.” 

International best practice shows that national teams of medical and public health providers are always the most appropriate first responders.  Building on this premise, WHO is advocating for a stronger national and regional system of preparedness and response.

“This will save more lives, and the work will be carried out in a more culturally-appropriate manner,” Mr. Lewis said.

For this reason, the WHO EMT initiative does not only focus on international responders.  In fact, its main emphasis is to strengthen the national EMTs and public-health, rapid-response system.  It will also strengthen the Ministry of Health’s ability to identify, accept and coordinate elements of the global health emergency workforce consistent with its needs.

Following the workshop, Iran’s Ministry of Health will create a working group/task force to manage the initiative. 

The next steps after this will be to develop and accredit national EMTs, while enhancing the capacity of existing EMTs to be quality-assured by WHO and join the global registry of verified teams ready for international deployment.

In time, the ability of countries to really – and effectively – and quickly – respond to future emergencies and outbreaks will no longer be confined to events depicted on the silver screen.  They will be an actual reality on the ground.

Follow Gary Lewis @GaryLewisUN
Follow UNIC Tehran @UNICTehran
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