Focus on the International Health Regulations: risk communication training
Sudan, like many other countries, faces a long list of potential public health threats – cholera, Rift Valley fever, droughts, floods, and chemical hazards to name a few. And the country’s capacity to deal with them has limitations, a situation also not unique to Sudan. As one national expert put it, during a recent outbreak of Rift Valley fever, the only available tools were the bare hands and communication skills of only a few people.
The Government of Sudan is aware of its obligation, under the International Health Regulations (2005) (IHR), to assess, notify and respond to public health threats. The IHR specifies 8 core capacities that are essential to public health response; one of the 8 capacities is risk communication.
Risk communication is a process that helps minimize death, disease and disability by engaging the public through rapid and transparent information exchange, taking into account their particular social, religious, cultural, political and economic concerns. Helping countries fully implement the IHR is one of WHO’s six leadership priorities. The Government of Sudan asked WHO’s Eastern Mediterranean office (EMRO) for support in strengthening its capacity for risk communication, especially through expanding the number of people with those skills.
A series of training courses, led by a multi-disciplinary IHR team from EMRO, and risk communications and capacity-building experts from Headquarters and the WHO Country Office in Khartoum, together with Sudanese counterparts, was held in February 2014. Participants included the IHR focal point (the office designated to liaise with WHO on IHR matters and events of public health concern) and a few others working in surveillance, zoonotic diseases, and points of entry. None of these people were trained communicators, but all were working in areas where communication is critical.
From this small group, the training was expanded to include 200 other technical officers, staff in the Ministry of Health, and animal health and agriculture officials, as well as those responsible for food, chemical and nuclear safety, points of entry and civil defence.
Initially, the training focused on basic communication skills, especially on how to build trust in communities. Participants learned how to analyse the needs of their public and build on tools already developed by the Federal Ministry of Health, from maps and posters to radio and text messages and a telephone hotline that citizens can use to get information and advice and to give their opinions. The country has a huge appetite for health information; “they consume health,” one trainer said.
As a result of this training, Sudan is now developing a national risk communications plan that will encompass a wide range of public health concerns. A second national meeting, which will review the plan and train media professionals, health workers and other partners, is in development.