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Aug. 11, 2006

Bloomberg School and PAHO Partnership
Online Epidemiology Certificate Program is Five Years Old

Bloomberg School assistant professor, Ana Navas-Acien, thought it seemed odd when a  good student in her Spanish language, internet-based epidemiology class two years ago missed an assignment without explanation. The student was doing well in class and was conscientious about completing her work.

Navas-Acien, MD, PhD ’05, MPH, soon learned why Marta Dantas didn’t meet her deadline. An environmental health specialist with Brazil’s Ministry of Health, Dantas had been dispatched to Paraguay to do an environmental risk assessment at the site of a mall fire that had killed more than 320 people.

“She emailed me, ‘I’m really sorry, I was sent to Paraguay,’” Navas-Acien recalls, noting that Dantas eventually caught up with the class, which is part of the curriculum for the School’s Internet-based Certificate Program in Epidemiology. The five-year-old program, developed by the Bloomberg School and the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), is not targeted to the typical public health student.

Taught mostly online in Spanish by Bloomberg School faculty, the year-long program is designed to give mid-level public health professionals in Latin American countries a refresher course in epidemiology with an emphasis on practical applications of the discipline. The program has awarded certificates to 103 students.

“This is what the students need,” says Navas-Acien, an instructor with the program for four years.  “They’re in a mid-career situation, they need to review their theory, they need to update their methods and knowledge, but they really want the classes to be very useful and practical for everyday activities.

Some students bring in challenges from their work, such as how to deal with a rabies outbreak or the health problems associated with a flood.

“I learn a lot from them,” Navas-Acien says of her students. “They’re at the frontlines of public health, really working in the field.”

The course had its beginnings in 1999 when Carlos Castillo-Salgado, a special advisor with PAHO, approached the Bloomberg School and proposed a partnership to develop a continuing education epidemiology course in Spanish. An adjunct associate professor in epidemiology at the School, he knew many public health professionals from Latin America who wanted to take advanced epidemiological training at top-level schools but weren’t able to leave their jobs for an extended period of time.

He also knew that these public health managers could benefit from a course that included teamwork? something that is generally not emphasized in public health training in Latin America ?and addressed situations that they students encountered in their professional lives.

“All the exercises and assignments are based on real data and on situations that the participants can relate to,” says Castillo-Salgado, MD, DrPH, ’88, MPH ’81, JD.

James Yager, PhD, senior associate dean for academic affairs at the Bloomberg School, and Edyth Schoenrich, MD, associate chair of the MPH program, supported the program early on. Epidemiology chair Jonathan Samet, MD, MS, who speaks Spanish, and Robert Lawrence, MD, the former associate dean for Professional Practice and Programs, were key figures in getting the certificate program off the ground in 2001.

Students must complete Lawrence’s one-week public health problem-solving course,  which takes place in Brazil, and two online epidemiology courses based on recorded lectures by Samet and Castillo-Salgado, the primary instructors in the certificate program. Navas-Acien, with the help of  teaching assistants, some of whom are from PAHO, does most of the teaching for the first epidemiology course, including live talks, answering emails and working with students who are having problems.

 Each cohort typically includes physicians, nurses and managers of public health programs, with many of the students coming from Brazil. After Jarbas Barbosa da Silva, Jr., MD, MPH, PhD, a top official in Brazil’s Ministry of Health, took the program in its first year, he wanted all the epidemiologists in the agency and its regional offices to take the course as well.

Central to the program is a year-long project that requires students to work in groups to assess a public health issue specific to a country or region, and develop a strategy to address the problem. At the program’s conclusion in Brazil, the groups present their plans to Bloomberg School faculty and Ministry of Health officials before receiving their certificates.

“These are not theoretical courses,” says Helen Walters, director of continuing professional education at the Bloomberg School. “The students in the program are working on problems they deal with every day and getting more tools to work on them.”

The agreement between PAHO and the Bloomberg School ends with the current cohort, which will complete the course in March 2007. PAHO has expressed interest in continuing the collaboration, and Brazil’s Ministry of Health, which financially supported the online program’s last three cohorts, has indicated its intention to fund two more cohorts.  Jackie Powder