An American expert of field epidemiology is one of the 50 international experts who have been given the Friendship Award for 2007, the highest honor presented by the Chinese government to international experts, in recognition of their contribution to China's development. Dr. Robert Fontaine won the prize for training Chinese doctors making investigations into and dealing with public health incidents.
The award comes as a surprise to him. He said it would not have been possible without such a wonderful team. He is training 25 Chinese doctors working in different parts of China to investigate into public health incidents or unknown diseases. He gives them advice on their field investigations. Their team conducts 60 emergency investigations a year.
Dr. Fontaine is the first permanent expert advisor for the Chinese Field Epidemiology Training Programme under the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. The project was launched in 2001, but only began to grow in 2003 when China experienced the SARS outbreak. Mr. Fontaine joined the program later that year after the SARS outbreak.
One of the investigations underway is of an unknown disease which had caused 270 deaths in a village in Yunnan province, in southwest China, over 20 years until 2005. "We are near the truth," said Dr. Fontaine.
He has been to that village twice. The latest trip was in July. His job has also taken him to other remote, poor areas in China, such as Guizhou, which is also in the southwest. Field epidemiology research means constant exposure to unknown diseases or public health incidents. In addition, you have to identify what the problem is and how to deal with it as soon as possible in order to save lives. Dr. Fontaine has been doing that for 35 years and enjoys it. "It's my job. It's my responsibility," he said.
Dr. Fontaine also gives advice to the government. He thinks China has done a very good job with vaccinations; but should do more to provide clean water in rural areas where health services are still not readily available.
Meanwhile, he is impressed by China's Internet reporting system for public health incidents which extends to county and even village hospitals. So was his boss, the director of US Centers for Disease Control, who said they should have a similar system in the US. Dr. Fontaine said that China lags behind, however, in diagnoses. He thinks it is a problem of laboratory testing. The quality of laboratory testing is one of his concerns about the quality issue in China. He hopes that China will shift its attention away from productivity to quality: the quality of drugs, vaccines, goods, and laboratory tests.
He also suggests that communication be improved between the government and the public; between the provincial stakeholders and those on the county level; and between public health doctors and clinical doctors.
Altogether 949 international experts from 56 countries have been honored the Friendship Award since 1991, when the prize was first created.
By People's Daily Online