The effort to curb COVID-19 infection rates has evolved to incorporate contact tracing — the labor-intensive effort to help patients recall everyone with whom they have had close contact during the timeframe they may have been infectious.
Contact tracing is a public health best practice that helps officials to stay ahead of the disease’s spread, and it is a tactic understood well by IMA World Health based on our response to the 2018 Ebola outbreak in central Africa.
“This is a core component of community surveillance and early response to infection,” says IMA’s Dr. Bill Clemmer.
IMA World Health helped to set up and sustain the contact tracing effort responsible for curtailing the record Ebola outbreak, focused in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Contact tracing efforts documented where patients had traveled, with whom they interacted and when their symptoms began.
IMA worked to connect information gleaned from contact tracing with other public health information so international organizations and the DRC’s Ministry of Health could gain as comprehensive and current a look at the disease’s spread as possible.
Contact tracing follows leads house-to-house
Technological solutions are not always possible in the communities where IMA works. The solution is usually more human labor-intensive. Contact tracers in the Ebola outbreak traveled roads and red-clay footpaths, crossing rocky creeks, all to follow the leads they received about someone who may have come in contact with Ebola within the 21-day window that marks the onset of symptoms.
Contact tracing gives public health officials a full picture of information, helping them to know where to guide resources and interventions in advance of the spread, and to respond accordingly where the epidemic has taken root.
Along the way, contact tracers and other health workers instruct communities in the importance of handwashing, of being vaccinated for Ebola and in seeking treatment if symptoms occur. The result provided more than reliable intelligence about the disease’s spread. In some parts of the DRC, the contact with health workers also fostered an uptick in the public’s use of health services at a time when severe distrust of international aid organizations brought security concerns.