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One on one interview with Dr Lazarus Kuonza – Program Director SAFETP

What factors have aided growth of the South Africa FETP?

The South Africa Field Epidemiology Training Program (SAFETP) is a two-year, competency-based training program established in 2006. The Program was developed as a collaboration between the South African National Department of Health (NDOH), the National Institute of Communicable Diseases (NICD) of the National Health Laboratory Service (NHLS), and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). SAFETP aims to increase South Africa’s field epidemiological capacity. 

SAFETP has come a very long way since inception.  I have been part of the program since 2009 and have seen its growth in terms of the quality of the training as well as improvement in terms of funding sustainability. The program is now fully owned by the Government of South Africa through the South Africa National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD).

South Africa FETP also recently expanded academic collaboration by partnering with two major universities in the country: the University of Witwatersrand (UW) and the University of Pretoria (UP). The program also recently gained Accreditation from the Training in Public Health Interventions Network (TEPHINET).

Since 2007, SAFETP has enrolled a total of 122 residents in 13 cohorts into the advanced program (18 residents are still in training).

How has the program supported other southern Africa countries? 

Over the past few years, we have tried to grow the program and make it accessible to other countries in the region. Our aim is to support southern African countries that do not have FETPs to build their public health capacity. These countries include: Lesotho, Swaziland, Malawi and Botswana. 

Malawi has since established a frontline training program and is also in the process of setting up an advanced training program. South Africa FETP has enrolled some of Malawi’s frontline graduates into the advanced program. 

Residents and graduates of SAFETP have also frequently offered support to Lesotho and Swaziland during outbreak investigations. The program has done a lot of work with Lesotho over the past 4 years to strengthen surveillance and outbreak response. We have supported them through frontline trainings, and through training residents on the advanced program and they are appreciative of the training.  

What is your plan to establish SAFETP as a mentorship program in the Southern African region?

In order to support public health in Africa, there is still need for a lot of capacity building. This includes expanding the frontline training to cover all African countries. There is need for FE(L)TPs to increase their engagement with ministries/departments of health to strengthen public health surveillance and response capacity within countries. In South Africa, SAFETP is supporting the National Department of Health in rolling out the implementation of the Integrated Disease Surveillance and Response (IDSR) strategy across all 9 provinces. The frontline FETP is being used as a platform to strengthen local capacities for detection, investigation and response to public health threats.

South Africa is increasingly becoming a regional hub for healthcare, largely because of well-developed health infrastructure and strong diagnostic laboratory capacity. Given the increased risk importation of disease of public health concern, it is imperative for the country to strengthen local, national and regional capacity to prevent, detect, and respond to these public health threats, in line with the Global Health Security Agenda. SAFETP is contributing to this agenda through training of the frontline public health workforce within South Africa and in neighboring countries to ensure that they are well equipped with skills to quickly detect and respond to any health threats in the population. The program will continue supporting other countries in the region.

How has collaboration with AFENET and TEPHINET have benefited SAFETP

Working with the regional and global networks has helped the SAFETP in so many ways. The networks have played a major role in the growth of Program, through enabling professional development opportunities for FETP staff, residents and graduates; facilitating resource-sharing and knowledge exchange with other programs; setting standards for improving the quality of field epidemiology training; and many other ways.

For the past three years SAFETP has received financial and technical support for frontline training through AFENET. AFENET has also supported the program to formally establish an alumni association, which has helped to foster a spirit of loyalty among program graduates.

SAFETP was recently granted TEPHINET accreditation. The process of applying for accreditation was very useful for the program, as it enabled us to identify areas of quality improvement in order to align with the accreditation standards.

My goal is to continue strengthening these collaborations.

Inspirational message to FE(L)TP residents and graduates?

Field epidemiology training is a cornerstone for any ministry of health to strengthen capacity for public health surveillance and outbreak response. The work done by FETP residents and graduates plays a very big role in protecting the health of the population. In fact, the impact of the training you have undertaken will extend beyond your local community, or even your country. Whether you are a trainee or a graduate, know that you are doing a good job for your country.