Imperial Royale Hotel, Kampala (As prepared for delivery)
Good afternoon! I am deeply honored to join you today on this special occasion to witness the graduation of the sixth cohort of the Public Health Fellowship Program.
This program is supported by the U.S. government through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC, and represents the top tier of the Field Epidemiology Training Program, or FETP. FETP’s aim is to improve a country’s capacities to respond to public health emergencies across different levels of the health system. In Uganda, these include the three-month FETP Frontline program, the nine-month FETP Intermediate program, whose launch in Jinja I was delighted to attend last August, and the two-year Public Health Fellowship Program, or PHFP. While this is the first time that I am attending a PHFP event, participating in the launch of the FETP Intermediate program provided me with a glimpse into the quality of the graduates and the significance of their fantastic work completed over the course of the training program. I understand that successfully completing this program is no easy feat. One must truly work hard to graduate. I therefore join the program leadership, your mentors, and the alumni to say CONGRATULATIONS for making it to the end!
All of us deserve to live long, healthy, and prosperous lives. In recognition of this, the majority of U.S. government assistance to Uganda is dedicated to the health sector. Annually, through the collective work of our agencies, including the CDC among others, we invest more than $500 million in Uganda’s health sector, helping to address many needs. But these past two years have been particularly difficult because of COVID-19. That is why, through 2021, the United States provided over $122 million in assistance to Uganda to support the country’s COVID-19 response, supporting border health efforts, providing critical care and treatment for severe cases of COVID-19 in various health facilities, and addressing the impact of COVID-19 on the continuity of regular health services.
In addition, we have donated to date more than 9.4 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine and supported Uganda’s nationwide vaccine rollout, provided technical and data support for enhanced COVID-19 case management and expanded surveillance, and funded more than 200 critical Ministry of Health positions in incident management, laboratory services, and nursing for urgent COVID-19 care needs at multiple hospitals. We also provided emergency supplies, personal protective equipment, as well as COVID-19 test kits. And we helped hospitals and healthcare facilities produce their own low cost, WHO-approved hand sanitizer; funded annual operational costs for Uganda’s Public Health Emergency Operations Center; and established Regional Emergency Operations Centers to monitor disease threats, which I visited here in Kampala as well as Fort Portal.
The U.S. government believes strongly in “investing in people.” Therefore, one of the key aspects of U.S. government assistance to the Ugandan health system is training local public health professionals like you to help their fellow Ugandans prevent disease. I am so pleased that you have been part of these joint efforts. Though our global programs, such as the Public Health Fellowship Program that has gathered us here today, we aim for sustained impact through the national workforce, like the fellows who are graduating today. YOU, our Fellows, led more than 70 major COVID-19 response activities, including studies on household COVID-19 transmission during home-based care, vaccine hesitancy and effectiveness, epidemiologic cluster investigations, contact tracing, facility preparedness assessments, and border hotspot studies. These efforts have strengthened Uganda’s ability to detect and respond to public health emergencies, particularly COVID-19, by providing critical, timely data to inform the response.
For example, I understand that the work of PHFP fellows in evaluating health system readiness at the start of the second wave uncovered important gaps in preparedness and response, such as the mixing of COVID patients and other patients in some facilities, and the underreporting caused by a lack of avenues to report rapid test results. Finding and responding to these gaps provided us with better data and enabled us to more effectively weather the second wave of COVID here in Uganda last June and July.
Apparently, there is no better classroom for training epidemiologists than a disease outbreak or health emergency. I’m aware that the emergence and global spread of COVID-19 in early 2020 coincided with the start of the classroom training for this graduating cohort, and that it formed the focus of your efforts over the succeeding two years. I know that what we have heard today is just a tiny fraction of what you have done and accomplished. It is no wonder that the Uganda PHFP won this year’s coveted CDC Director’s Award for Excellence in Outbreak and Public Health Response for your contributions to Uganda’s national COVID-19 response. Many of your studies have had a major impact on standard practice and guidelines, reducing risk and improving health for Ugandans nationwide.
Beyond COVID, you helped prevent the spread of Ebola and plague from neighboring DRC and continued with other investigations and activities in HIV, TB, and malaria programs, viral hemorrhagic fevers, Blackwater Fever, as well as zoonoses such as anthrax. I especially wish to commend implementing partners that have increasingly taken on a major role in mentoring these fellows in projects that fill critical knowledge gaps in the HIV and TB response. This is gratifying, because this program is supported by CDC with funding from the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, or PEPFAR. I understand the fellows have already completed 112 projects in HIV, including 13 in this graduating cohort alone, and there are 16 new projects just starting, each designed to answer critical questions.
I am appreciative of the strong support of the Ugandan Ministry of Health, which has enabled this important program to move forward. I also ask that you join me in thanking the hardworking PHFP staff for their tireless efforts in building and supporting this program. You have made PHFP the critical partner in Uganda’s public health system that it is today. I would also like to recognize that none of this work could have been accomplished without the collaboration with our colleagues in Uganda at the National Animal Disease Diagnostics and Epidemiology Centre, the Uganda National Health Laboratory and Diagnostic Services and Central Public Health Laboratories, the Uganda Virus Research Institute, and many others. I am delighted to see that many of the alumni are already taking up key positions in the Ministry of Health—including staffing our FETP programs across all three levels of the fellowship training programs, with CDC and partner organizations. This attests to the importance and value of the program and above all, the quality of its graduates.
I urge all fellows to build on these experiences to carry on the mantle of preventing, detecting, and responding to disease outbreaks and improving public health. I hope we can deploy many of you not only here in Uganda, but to other countries affected by outbreaks.
I am honored to welcome the new cohort of “disease detectives” – the 13 new members of the PHFP class of 2022. I have no doubt that you made the best choice to join this program. Thank you all for the work you do. Let us continue to work hard together. Your efforts have already helped and will continue to help save lives.