APORA: Building African partner nations’ healthcare programs through information sharing

The 9th annual African Partnership Outbreak Response Alliance conference, designed to support efforts to collectively respond to infectious disease outbreaks in Africa, concluded at the end of the third and final virtual seminar Oct. 7.

This iteration of APORA focused on outbreak response, particularly the coronavirus commonly referred to as COVID-19.

Ivorian Brigade Gen. Dowlo N’Dri Athanase Yao, President of APORA, opened the first virtual seminar Sept. 23.

Yao, through translation, mentioned that participants “must build a solid foundation for APORA, and we know that can’t be done alone. We need collaboration — efficient collaboration with partners that have already proven their ways.”

APORA’s motto is “forward together” and speaks to the member nations’ solidarity in preventing and responding to infectious diseases which know no borders.

Online discussions were held among U.S. military healthcare professionals and leaders from more than a dozen participating African countries. In addition, international and interagency partners were invited to participate, including the World Health Organization, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, and the Department of Defense HIV/AIDS Prevention Program.

“At the strategic level, discussing topics of infection control, border security (with regards to outbreaks), incident command and emergency operations centers aids the partner nations in understanding interoperability,” said Maj. John Shepard, 181st Medical Group public health officer, Indiana Air National Guard. “Any opportunity to foster positive and productive relationships with foreign partners for the U.S. and the Indiana Air National Guard is worth engaging.”

Topics included threats and opportunities in the COVID-19 environment, best practices in prevention and response to COVID-19, biosecurity threat reduction, and disease management during COVID-19.

“What we  learn and teach each other are the best processes of how to construct these plans,” said Col. Jonathan Craig Taylor, command surgeon, U.S. Africa Command, mentioning that AFRICOM constructed COVID-19 plans by pulling elements of other plans together into an initial response plan. “So when COVID, or maybe the next challenge comes along, we are ready.”

In addition to sharing and learning from the alliance participants, the conference also provided learning and collaboration opportunities for the U.S. military participants.

“Not only do these events allow us the opportunity for more engagement and relationship building with our state partners in Morocco, but they also provide an invaluable experience to network and learn from our active duty counterparts and National Guard colleagues about other programs and initiatives that are currently being developed within these African nations,” said Lt. Col. Carissa Christensen, 151st Medical Group, Utah Air National Guard.

Participants also shared current guidelines on COVID-19 prevention and treatment, and identified and aligned best practices among partner nations.

“This was the first time in many of our lives where we’d seen the whole world affected almost all at once by a single disease,” Taylor said. “APORA has played a very key role as we continue to build our partnerships in this conference and share our best practices to strengthen our global partnership.”

By APORA participants sharing their experience, it helped generate discussions and idea sharing.

“I always learn many valuable lessons from these APORA events,” said Christensen. “It was nice to see how the countries coordinated their COVID-19 response efforts and the similarities to our own response in Utah. I am always grateful for people who are willing to share their lessons learned because I believe that the sharing of this information is often at the core for continuous improvement, at both the national and international level.”

“The teamwork observed between countries that may have differences outside of the medical field is wonderful to experience,” said Shepard. “We always learn something new. The topics discussed provide insight to their resources and capabilities, and more importantly how they are resilient with what they have. These sessions help provide insight on how to translate our training level to their capabilities to maximize the knowledge exchange.”

As the conference concluded, alliance participants were grateful for the opportunities afforded through the virtual APORA conference.

“I was very impressed with how well the APORA team coordinated this event,” said Christensen. “The agenda was well-balanced and full of pertinent topics related to the current pandemic. I am grateful for the opportunity to have participated.”

Shepard echoed the sentiments.

“There are many wonderful members of APORA who go to every conference,” said Shepard. “Getting to know them, the other state partners, and the AFRICOM team has been an experience of a lifetime.”

APORA began in 2014 with 12 countries to mitigate the threat of emerging and re-emerging pathogens in Africa due to lack of early warning detection and response. Today, there are 26 African countries participating in APORA events and membership is open to any African nation. APORA members are currently developing a manual of best practices and have expanded activities to include table-top exercises and training in public health emergency operations. 

Editor’s note: U.S. Africa Command Public Affairs contributed to this article