The disease detective fighting epidemics

A ‘disease detective’ from The Australian National University (ANU) wants to better coordinate emergency responses.

Dr Meru Sheel, a field epidemiologist and population health expert, has just won a prized Westpac Research Fellowship for her pioneering work on strengthening global health security in the Asia-Pacific region.

“Countries in the Asia-Pacific region are highly vulnerable to natural disasters and diseases outbreaks, and with Australia being one of the countries in the region, it puts us at risk,” said Dr Sheel.

 “When disease outbreaks spread the most vulnerable are people in poverty who live in countries with weak health systems.

“My work will look at whether there is a lack of coordination and collaborative leadership between key partners, responders and multi-lateral agencies, and if improving those factors along with epidemiological data can drive outbreak response activities.

“Not knowing how to work together effectively hampers our ability to control an outbreak.”

Dr Sheel, from the ANU Research School of Population Health, has witnessed first-hand the emergency response to cyclone Winston in Fiji, hurricane Maria in Dominica and a large-scale diphtheria outbreak among the Rohingya population in Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh, one of world’s largest and densest refugee camps.

The epidemiologist says she knows how to pack a bag quickly and always takes mosquito repellent and coffee bags to a deployment.

“As a field epidemiologist, one of my main tasks is to undertake disease surveillance and track the outbreak, find its source and identify the people affected by it. The next step is to provide prevention measures that control the spread of the outbreak,” said Dr Sheel.

“Outbreaks will always happen, but we can improve how quickly we respond and report and how responders work in that context.”

Dr Sheel’s work advocates for educating and training local staff during and after an outbreak response.

“My research will aim to identify the gaps and design a faster and efficient outbreak response, both in Australia and internationally.”

Dr Sheel’s work will focus on major health emergencies and will explore how response activities can lead to long-term strengthening of public health systems.

Dr Sheel was one of two researchers to be awarded the prestigious Westpac Research Fellowship which supports her research for three years.

Her research is set to build capacity in the Asia-Pacific region during emergencies.

You can break into outbreak research with a Master of Public Health from the Research School of Population Health at ANU.