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NEW DELHI : India is setting up a cadre of frontline epidemiologists to counter future pandemics, acting swiftly on the breathing space it has got from plummetting covid-19 cases.

The plan is to train epidemiologists across India so that there is a ready bank of specialists to tackle any outbreaks of infectious diseases in the future, said a top official at the National Centre for Disease Control (NCDC).

NCDC, which is under the health ministry, has already begun training epidemiologists across the country, and training programmes have been completed in Rajasthan, Uttarakhand and Jammu & Kashmir, with the next sessions planned for Arunachal Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh.

India already has an Epidemic Intelligence Service, whose cadre will be involved in the training programme and roll-out.

While the immediate priority of the government is to train epidemiologists in the public health response to covid-19, the specialist cadre is also being trained to devise strategies for other public health challenges of the future.

With epidemiology a key part of public health, the so-called 3/3 Frontline Epidemiology Training is strategically planned and happens every three months for three days wherein district level medical officers participate. These include microbiologists, district surveillance officers and paramedical staff. The training module also includes a new course,

“One Health Field Epidemiological training", which is in collaboration with veterinary institutes and looks at the zoonotic threats in future along with concepts and techniques of molecular epidemiology.

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Zoonotic threats have assumed significance of late given epidemics emanating from animal sources, including avian flu and covid-19.

“Keeping pandemic preparedness in mind, we have started the training of epidemiologists across the country to teach them basic principles of epidemiology. This is the lean period for us as India is reporting sharp decline in covid-19 cases, therefore we are utilizing this time in capacity building of all epidemiologists across the nation. For this, we are coordinating with the states and we are getting a good response from them," said NCDC director Dr S.K. Singh, an epidemiologist himself.

Senior epidemiologists from NCDC, experts from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention of the US (regional office in India) and state-level specialist surveillance officers are providing the training to help epidemiologists devise strategies for future public health challenges.

Each training session is attended by about 50-60 epidemiologists from at least 20 districts of a particular region.

“We are offering three types of training to the epidemiologists. In the first month, we teach them basic epidemiology concepts, in the second month, we train them how to review the situation for surveillance -- for example, what parameters we have to look for in the covid-19 pandemic and what should be the surveillance strategy," said the health ministry official cited above.

In the third month, epidemiologists are given a task -- they have to identify any particular disease in their district and write a report on an outbreak investigation.

“The report is analysed by NCDC and CDC officials. We also conduct online reviews every day and we ask them what they did on the field, what kind of data they have collected and how they interpret the data. This exercise helps us in sensitizing epidemiologists so that even if we have zero cases, we know what kind of surveillance we have to do in relevance to the pandemic," added the official.

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