Jackie Cohran's job puts her in contact with some of the most devastating biological diseases and poisons there are. She faces down tuberculosis, AIDS and hepatitis to try to stave off potential epidemics.
For nearly six years, Cohran has done this high-risk work through her own business, Infection Control Consultation Services, which she runs out of her home in Fort Washington. She provides consultation services and 24-hour on-site treatment for many Prince George's County employees, as well as private employees in hospitals and home health care agencies who come into contact with diseases, bacteria and viruses.
"I love what I do," said Cohran, a registered nurse and licensed infection control officer who deals with crises including anthrax threats and meningitis outbreaks.
People seeking Cohran's help often have been exposed to body fluids or tuberculosis and generally can be treated with drugs or injections. Cohran, who works in conjunction with Express Care, a Cheverly lab, can confirm the presence of a disease or virus either on site or through the lab in one or two days, she said. If confirmed, her task then turns to retracing the movement of people brought into contact with the disease so they can be counseled or treated.
Such diseases travel through the air or body fluids at varying rates, depending on the infectious organism. Being able to gauge the level of contact with the organism and the contact between people is essential for containing infectious outbreaks. For example, a tuberculosis outbreak at a 1,500-inmate jail usually can be contained by testing about 50 people who have had contact with one infected person, she said.
Infection Control, which is expected this month to sign a $300,000 contract to expand its services to the county, started in 1994 and has seen revenue grow from $50,000 that year to an estimated $500,000 this year. Eventually, Cohran wants to expand to serve public agencies in neighboring jurisdictions, "to provide standardized services" to the whole region.
Cohran receives three to five calls daily, including late-night calls, from county employees or members of the public with questions about diseases. "Most people are afraid of getting the infection and giving it to their families," Cohran said of her callers. There are strict confidentiality rules that protect people who receive Cohran's services, though she is required by law to report incidents of her clients' contact with communicable diseases to the state.
In the fall, after a 20-year-old male University of Maryland student was diagnosed with meningitis, Cohran was called at 6:30 a.m. to administer preventive medicine to the two paramedics who transported the victim. The university and hospital administered Rocephin, a preventive treatment for meningitis, to doctors and students who came into contact with the student, and the disease was contained, she said.
David Richardson, a volunteer emergency medical technician for the Prince George's County fire department who has worked with Cohran, said she brings a sense of calm and security to her work that is invaluable. Richardson had contact with a confirmed case of Hepatitis C recently, and Cohran came in to tell him what his risk level was and what kind of blood work was necessary. "She's excellent for that and puts things into a language that everyone can understand," he said.
Cohran's staff includes seven independently contracted infection control officers certified by an industry association, the Certification Board of Infection Control and Epidemiology Inc., who are on call 24 hours a day. Often people are panicked, as was one caller who had blood splashed in her mouth, but the rate of infection and transmission of viruses such as HIV is fairly low, or less than 0.1 percent, depending on the severity of the wound and the volume of blood, she said.
For crisis moments, there are measures such as an anti-HIV drug that, if administered within two hours of contact with the virus, can reduce the chance of infection by 79 percent, she said.
Cohran, who worked as a nurse epidemiologist at Howard and Georgetown universities, said that starting her own business was relatively easy. She already was known in the field, she said, and was able to market herself by making direct calls and presentations to potential clients.
Cohran doesn't fear getting the diseases she treats. "All you have to do is make sure that people understand the modes of transmission of diseases, and once you understand that," there is nothing to fear, she said.
That is what she tells some of the teenagers who call her for advice on sexually transmitted diseases, Cohran said. As a public service, Cohran offers confidential and personal advice to her callers.
For more information, call Infection Control Consultation Services at 301-749-9540.
CAPTION: Jackie Cohran, right, vaccinates members of the Bladensburg Volunteer Fire Department. She had participated in a seminar on how to handle patients and victims with potentially infectious viruses.
CAPTION: "I love what I do," said Cohran, who founded an infection control consulting firm in Fort Washington.