As Canadian public health experts continue to adapt and respond during the COVID-19 pandemic, the importance of established partnerships in public health has never been clearer. These experts coordinate to share knowledge and support each other so that they can continue producing the best science for Canadians and remain research leaders in the world.
In 2004 the Public Health Agency of Canada’s (PHAC) National Microbiology Laboratory (NML) formed a knowledge-sharing system called the Canadian Network for Public Health Intelligence (CNPHI). The Network fosters connections among Canadian public health professionals with the goal of safeguarding public health. CNPHI is a secure, web-based resource, offering public health informatics solutions to enable surveillance, alerting, information sharing and collaboration among public health professionals in all levels of government across the country.
A wake-up call from SARS
The story of CNPHI started in 2003, following lessons learned from the global outbreak of SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome), another coronavirus that no one had ever seen before.
Dr. Shamir Mukhi is the founding technology architect and Chief Engineer behind CNPHI’s public health technologies.
“SARS was a wake-up call,” recalls Dr. Mukhi. “It showed us that public health threats don’t respect jurisdictional boundaries. Canada needed a platform that wrapped national public health surveillance, collaboration, and a way to send public health alerts into a seamless and responsive package. CNPHI was the answer to that need.”
Ever since then, scientific collaboration and public health tools have been expanding steadily on the CNPHI platform. Today, over 6000 public health professionals from all levels of government and areas of expertise are registered users of CNPHI.
CNPHI in the age of COVID-19
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the CNPHI team has continued to work steadily behind the scenes with program experts, supporting effective collaboration and enhancing tools in contribution to Canada’s response.
“It’s all about the partnerships,” says Dr. Mukhi. “All of our initiatives are undertaken in close partnership with public health program experts. We focus on understanding a program’s role, activities, and objectives, and we listen very closely to the needs they express. That’s the key.”
One example of this is PHAC’s FluWatchers program, which is a surveillance system that engages the participation of Canadians to track the spread of flu and flu-like illness across Canada. The partnership between CNPHI and FluWatchers enabled rapid enhancements to increase the flexibility of information captured to adapt the program for COVID-19. To date, during COVID-19, FluWatchers has experienced a four-fold increase in participation.
“CNPHI is an integral part of Canada’s National Flu and Respiratory Surveillance monitoring programs” said Andrea Nwosu from PHAC’s FluWatch program. “In collaboration with federal, provincial and territorial partners, CNPHI has co-developed and supported multiple innovative initiatives while also supporting our agility to adapt”.
Support for public health protection continues on all fronts
“We’re not expecting other public health priorities and issues to take a holiday during the pandemic,” reflects Dr. Mukhi. “We continue to support all of our public health partners during these unprecedented times.”
After seventeen years of growth and evolution, CNPHI supports public health initiatives across an entire spectrum, fostering intelligence, prevention, research and response in areas including enteric, respiratory and zoonotic diseases, animal health, blood safety, injuries and poisonings, drinking water safety, and antimicrobial resistance. The list goes on, and continues to grow.
“I would describe CNPHI as a national resource, enabled by innovative technologies and designed by public health professionals for public health professionals,” says Dr. Mukhi. “The capabilities and solutions offered by today’s technologies are astounding, but the most critical ingredient will always be the collaborative partnerships.”