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Nicole Solano, a Ph.D. student in ecology, shows participants how to don personal protective equipment, or PPE.

Do you ever wonder what would happen if a dangerous disease threatened our community? Who responds? What are the steps taken to contain it and protect the public’s health? Thirty-three students at the University of Georgia found out recently when they participated in Spillover: A One Health Infectious Disease Outbreak Simulation in February at the College of Veterinary Medicine on UGA’s South Campus.

Designed and organized by Katherine Franc, a dual degree DVM-MPH student in the College of Veterinary Medicine and College of Public Health, and Anna Chocallo, an MPH student concentrating in disaster management in the College of Public Health, the daylong event brought together facilitators from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as faculty from the Colleges of Veterinary Medicine and Public Health, to stage a simulated infectious disease outbreak in the Athens community.

The idea for this event came about when planning Franc’s assistantship project. She and her advisor, Dr. Danny Mead, a professor in the College of Veterinary Medicine, wanted to do something that would leave a lasting impact on the rising generation of health scientists and the future of public health.

“We were hoping to provide a hands-on opportunity in outbreak investigation that would inspire the next generation of public health experts and challenge them to work together with their peers as they apply the knowledge they’ve learned in the classroom in as close to a real-life setting as possible,” said Franc.

This was put into action as students from the Colleges of Veterinary Medicine, Public Health and Pharmacy, and the Odum School of Ecology learned from firsthand accounts by CDC professionals about the steps in solving a disease outbreak, proper donning and doffing of personal protective equipment, handling unknown pathogens, analyzing epidemiological data, and effective public health risk communication.

Students were then divided into teams and challenged to work through a hypothetical outbreak that was caused by a novel pathogen. This pathogen had contaminated waterways used for a triathlon event in which heavy rains in the area had caused runoff from a local swine farm. The students had to act as real-life “disease detectives,” and work through simulated exercises to quickly identify the source of the outbreak and plan steps for containment and remediation to prevent more people from becoming infected.

“The tricky part about disease outbreaks is that you never know where the next pathogen is coming from. Viruses and bacteria can readily mutate, or spillover, acquiring an ability to infect new species and act in ways that we have never seen them behave before,” said Franc. “This is why we need the future of health scientists to be able to think and act quickly on their feet and be at the ready with knowledge from their own experiences and that of their colleagues to help guide the decisions that they make.”

By breaking down the barriers of traditionally isolated health and science professions early on in students’ careers through team-centered exercises, the simulation promoted a more timely and effective response in solving infectious disease challenges of the future.

“I have never worked in a health care facility or outbreak setting where I had to interact with those only from my profession,” said Mary Pomeroy, a CDC Epidemic Intelligence Service officer who helped to facilitate the event. “Providing optimal patient or community level care means relying upon collaborative efforts of professionals with diverse backgrounds and determining how each unique person can help accomplish a shared mission. The UGA outbreak scenario certainly modeled this approach, affording each participant a better understanding of how epidemiologists and other professionals operate in the real world.”

The students involved with designing the simulation sought to foster a legacy of mutual respect and appreciation across professions to improve health outcomes for humans, animals and the environment as a whole. This mission is the cornerstone of the One Health mantra, which is the idea that the health of humans, animals and the environment are all inter-connected. The goal of the outbreak simulation was not only to encourage interdisciplinary collaboration among health disciplines, but also to inspire the next generation of health professionals to pursue careers in public health preparedness and One Health.

“This exercise was a great way for students to see the concept of One Health at work,” said Mary Hondalus, associate professor in the College of Veterinary Medicine and coordinator of the DVM-MPH dual degree program. “By working collaboratively to solve a disease outbreak scenario, they see how complex and demanding situations like this can be. The hands-on experience they got by participating is invaluable.”

Participant and UGA DVM/PhD veterinary student Jennifer Bloodgood, recalled, “I have always been taught that interdisciplinary collaboration is a great way to solve problems, as multiple perspectives from different backgrounds can shed new light on problems and solutions. The experience of working with students in the many disciplines really brought home the “One Health” message for me and demonstrated how many minds together are always better than one.”

Marie Bosch, a DVM-MPH student who participated in the exercise said she would come to future events. “I think I learned the most about the proper etiquette when engaging with the public, whether it’s one-on-one interviews or making a formal statement,” she said. “It was good to learn how to do that and see how the whole thing comes together.”

Chocallo hopes to carry out similar events at UGA in the future that will involve collaboration among multiple health disciplines. “The need for cooperation and mutual respect in professional practice will only become more important in today’s ever-changing world, and exercises similar to the one recently completed might provide the skills necessary to solve the next big disaster in the world,” Chocallo said.

Funding for the event was generously provided by the Student Chapter of the American Veterinary Medical Association, the Georgia’s Learning through Interprofessional Development Experience (GLIDE) Program at UGA, and donations from the College of Veterinary Medicine and College of Public Health.