Leading the public health response to global outbreaks

September 4, 2012

Dr. Ali Khan is a disease tracker for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) who has gone on the trail more than 40 outbreaks of mysterious infectious diseases and public health disasters over the past two decades, both here and abroad, seeking to identify causes, the extent of the infected populations and how to halt the spread of the disease. He has investigated hantavirus pulmonary syndrome, Ebola hemorrhagic fever, monkey pox, Rift Valley fever and avian influenza, to name a few.

After the anthrax mail attacks in 2001, Khan’s responsibility was to figure out who was infected, or potentially infected, and make sure they got antibiotics. In 2003, Khan flew to Singapore to advise the government on its response to a spate of SARS (Sudden Acute Respiratory Syndrome) cases. And, after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005, he and two Georgia national guardsmen commandeered a hospital and set up a post to re-establish public health services.

“I go on every high-profile outbreak for CDC,” Khan said, CDC’s director of the Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response. “I like the immediacy of doing something.”

Khan also assists the CDC in maintaining a strategic stockpile of medicines and vaccines and helps states with preparedness. His efforts have won his high praise from colleagues throughout the public health field.

“He’s a tireless road warrior for public health,” said Dr. Tom Inglesby, director of the University of Pittsburgh’s Medical Center’s (UPMC) Center for Biosecurity. “He has a strong understanding of what it takes for public health organizations to respond to disasters and the ability to manage a large, complicated organization.”


Dr. Ali Khan of the CDC. (Jim Gathany/CDC)

Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, secretary of the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, said Khan has been “good at helping states use the tools for every day public health challenges, rather than just build them in case of catastrophic emergency.”

One of Khan’s roles is to help the CDC reach out to people and encourage them to put together an emergency kit, come up with an evacuation plan in advance and stay informed and help their neighbors during an actual emergency. With such preparation, he said, individuals and families will be able to take care of themselves for the first couple of hours and days after an emergency situation.

A recent publicity campaign tried to drive the point home to a wide audience by playing off the popularity of zombies. “If you’re prepared for a zombie apocalypse, you’re prepared for anything,” Khan said, explaining the concept behind the tongue-in-cheek blog campaign. That includes hurricanes, earthquakes, nuclear accidents and public health emergencies.

The CDC is using the blog to convey the serious message that people should be ready not only for all major crises, but for more routine situations too, such as flu, whooping cough or wildfires.

“I thought it was brilliant,” Sharfstein said. “It helps people understand the concept of all-hazards preparedness.”

The campaign has been a huge hit and helped Khan fulfill a key part of his role—helping spread the word about public health issues and preparedness. The blog had been getting about 3,000 hits in a month but after the first zombie post, it got 8,000 within eight or nine minutes. To date, the blog has gotten more than 3.6 million visitors.

Khan hopes the publicity from this and other campaigns will remind people that the CDC works constantly to keep them safe, and that systems, people and tools are in place to protect Americans from routine disease outbreaks and pandemics.

Before Khan became a disease detective, he was an internist and a pediatrician who began an “accidental” public health career at the CDC, he said, taking on the management of public health at a national, strategic level and helping to make sure people have the systems and tools they need.

He is concerned now, however, about the loss of thousands of public health officials due to economic conditions, at the same the nation continues to experience new, often unusual disease outbreaks, such as West Nile virus and plague, which make their way here from around the world.

“We’ve made tremendous progress, but a lot is in jeopardy,” he said. “We’re at risk for natural disasters, pandemics, infections, manmade and novel diseases we weren’t at risk for 10 years ago.”

This article was jointly prepared by the Partnership for Public Service, a group seeking to enhance the performance of the federal government, and washingtonpost.com. Go to http://washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/politics/fedpage/players/ to read about other federal workers who are making a difference.

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