In the nearly 70-year history of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) only three disasters called for an “all hands on deck,” Level 1 emergency response – Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the H1N1 pandemic of 2009 and the Ebola epidemic of 2014. This Ebola epidemic – the largest one in history – was the first assignment for Christopher Hsu, MD, PhD, from the Epidemic Intelligence Services (EIS) officer training program at the CDC.
As an EIS officer in the Division of High-Consequence Pathogens and Pathology at CDC, Hsu investigates and studies deadly and exotic pathogens like chikungunya, monkeypox, rabies and Ebola.
Given Hsu’s work on disease at CDC, I was surprised to learn that the topic of his prestigious three-year fellowship at Stanford was cancer, not infectious disease. I asked Hsu about this and what it’s like working on the largest Ebola epidemic in the world. He summed it up this way: “I get to work with very deadly and interesting diseases. I travel, see new cultures and am immersed in my work. I’m not just studying the disease; I’m in the jungle, studying the disease where it began with the people from that region. It’s a great honor to be in that position.”
Hsu’s switch from studying cancer to investigating infectious disease sounds drastic, but it wasn’t much of a stretch, he explained. Hsu earned a PhD in veterinary pathobiology studying interspecies disease transmission before he began studying cancer at Stanford. “I enjoyed the work, but I also recalled some savvy advice a mentor once said to me, ‘you excel where your passion lies.’ I realized I lacked the fire in the belly.”
When Hsu told his peers and mentors at Stanford he wanted to study infectious disease, Philip Pizzo, MD, former dean of the medical school and a specialist in oncology and infectious diseases, supported his decision. “I am very grateful to him,” Hsu said. “He probably doesn’t realize this, but he was a huge influence on where I am today after Stanford.”
Two years later, Hsu and his cohort of EIS officers, affectionately nicknamed “the Ebola Class,” learned the 2014 Ebola outbreak had just been classified as a Level 1 emergency. CDC Director Tom Frieden, MD, MPH, visited Hsu’s class and personally asked them to take up the call to work on Ebola. Hsu’s cohort was a mix of physicians, nurses, veterinarians, and scientists with specialties ranging from malaria to violence prevention, but after Frieden’s visit, their professional interests no longer mattered. “We decided we were all working on Ebola in some capacity,” Hsu said.
Many of the EIS officers in Hsu’s Ebola class have completed one or two 30 to 90-day deployments to prevent and control Ebola in West African countries with widespread transmission (Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone), or in one of the other countries where Ebola occurred in the past. Hsu describes his disease fieldwork as part detective work and part disease control. “I investigated who was sick, what their symptoms were and who had contact with them,” Hsu said.
Continue Reading »