The 21st century poses new and persistent challenges in detecting and managing infectious hazards: severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), influenza and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) are examples that can be added to more recent health emergencies, such as Ebola or Zika. These outbreaks and epidemics have highlighted the need to systematically include social science-based interventions (SSI) in any health emergency response.
While medical anthropologists and social scientists have been part of outbreak response teams in the past, recent outbreaks underscored the fact that most social scientists are not systematically embedded into response operations and there is no framework to consider their inputs and advice to inform real-time decision-making by incident managers, emergency operations centre leads and others.
WHO has therefore established SocialNET, a network of social scientists with the required qualifications and operational experiences to work in epidemics, pandemics and other health emergencies.
There are currently 24 social scientists trained and available to be deployed to countries in need for support in preparedness and response to health emergencies.
The SocialNET network is composed of a pool of social scientists trained to work as part of the health operations in the field, in close collaboration with key stakeholders, including focal persons for community engagement, risk communication and public communication.
They are ready to deploy to countries during non-emergency periods to help build capacity for integrating social science-based approaches and interventions for emergency response, build up baseline social and cultural data that relate to known risky behaviours, and mitigate health risks.
All social scientists within the pool have underwent an intense WHO training on how to work in health emergencies. The training consisted of three parts: 1) An online course on OpenWHO, a WHO training platform for health emergencies; 2) A face-to-face classroom discussions and exercises; and 3) A face-to-face simulation exercise to put theory into practice.