Qatar’s First University Elective on Infectious Disease Outbreak Was Like Being in the Eye of the Storm
It is often touted as the capstone event of modern epidemiology and public health.
In 1854 a cholera outbreak in central London – more popularly known as The Broad Street Pump Incident – claimed the lives of over 600 people. And the toll would have been higher, had it not been for the work of Dr. John Snow, a British physician who used observation, testing, reasoning, and maps, to pinpoint the source of the outbreak to a water pump that was dispensing contaminated water to a specific neighbourhood.
Fast-forward to 2020, and the COVID-19 pandemic has cast the spotlight on the study of infectious diseases and public health, areas that – due to the rise of other medical specializations and subsequent commercialization of health care – had been gradually relegated to the shadows by the media.
That equation, though, seems to have shifted overnight. With COVID-19 sweeping the globe, public health dominates the news as policymakers and researchers work alongside university faculty and students – such as those at Weill Cornell Medicine-Qatar, a Qatar Foundation partner university – to study ways of mitigating the pandemic.
Seven WCM-Q third-year medical students recently completed Qatar’s first university elective, called Infectious Disease Outbreak: A Public Health Response, and jointly organized by WCM-Q’s Institute of Population Health, along with the Ministry of Public Health (MoPH).
The course directors for the elective were Sheikh Dr. Mohammed Al-Thani, Director of Public Health at the Ministry of Public Health, and Associate Professor of Healthcare Policy and Research at WCM-Q; Dr. Ravinder Mamtani, WCM-Q’s Professor of Healthcare Policy and Research, Professor of Medicine and Vice Dean for Student Affairs, Population Health, and Lifestyle Medicine; and Dr. Sohaila Cheema, Director of the Institute for Population Health and Assistant Professor of Healthcare Policy and Research at WCM-Q.
The month-long credited course – held at MoPH – gave them an in-depth view of the epidemiology of infectious diseases and epidemics, the characteristics, causes and investigations of outbreaks, and risk communication between stakeholders.
According to Toqa Afifi and Basel Humos, two of the WCM-Q medical students who completed the module, what sets this course apart was that they were in the “control room”, along with frontline public health specialists who were involved in monitoring and mitigating the pandemic’s spread in Qatar.
“It’s a bit like being in the eye of the storm,” says Afifi. “No matter what you read about epidemiology in text books, it’s something else to be involved in a program where you’re simultaneously learning about and observing an evolving health crisis – and applying what you learn.
“We were involved in monitoring data, contacting COVID-19 patients, tracing secondary contacts, arranging further intervention, and so on. No lecture can teach you this – you need to get knee-deep along with the others, to truly understand the efforts that go into keeping people – keeping a country – healthy. This is what studying medicine is all about.”
The course also reflects and respects the historical evolution of tried and tested methodology in studying infectious diseases. The basis of certain topics discussed in the elective – such as understanding the properties of infectious agents, contact tracing, surveillance, data assessment, route mapping and monitoring high-risk sections of the population – have not changed much since the days of Dr. Snow. Yet, along with other fields such as communication and statistical analysis, their accuracy has been sharpened by technology.
“The basic fundamentals of tackling epidemics have remained almost the same across the years; what’s changed is the way technology has sped up and sharpened collection, analysis, and results,” Afifi explains.
“For instance, during the course, we used a digital platform – a data entry system – called Surveillance And Vaccination Electronic System (SAVES). The system takes in all the data that we have collected from the field and generates epidemiological analysis. A few decades ago, this would have had to be worked out manually. And online web meetings have helped massively – it has allowed those on the frontline to immediately reach out to practitioners in a different area or continent, to compare data or receive guidance.”
The newly-introduced elective may have been triggered by the pandemic, but public health has always been a part of the regular undergraduate curriculum at WCM-Q.
Students go through a two-week compulsory clerkship in public health, and the university also offers two other public health-focused electives – Lifestyle Medicine, and Global Health – for those interested in acquiring a deeper understanding of the practicalities of the subject. It is also the key focus of the university’s Institute of Population Health.
“The Institute for Population Health has been conducting research in infectious diseases since it was established in 2017” says Dr. Sohaila Cheema, Director, Institute for Population Health, and Assistant Professor of Healthcare Policy and Research at WCM-Q. “Some of our recent research publications explored the incidence and management of Hepatitis C, public awareness of the Zika virus, and the relevance of gap mapping in epidemiology.
“Additionally, the institute is also conducting research related to the SARS CoV2, and the latest COVID-19.”
The current pandemic has inadvertently served as a reminder for the healthcare system, and the entire world for that matter, that public health is – and should be – at the core of medical education and treatment.
“What people tend to forget is that healthcare itself originated from the need to keep a population healthy”, says Humos. “This pandemic has reminded everyone of that.
“As a medical student, it’s also highlighted the reason why public health is bookended in our curriculum; why it’s taught in our foundation year and then again, in our final year.
“There is a reason for that: it drives home the fact that, at the micro and macro level, the goal of medical care is public health – that it is the alpha and omega of preventing and treating diseases.”
Qatar Foundation (QF) is a non-profit organization made up of more than 50 entities working in education, research, and community development.
Our unique ecosystem—supported by partnerships with leading international institutions—is built on initiatives that address our most pressing challenges, create global opportunities, and empower people to shape our present and future.