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Dr. Tom Clark: Fighting to keep meningitis, whooping cough and other preventable diseases at bay

(Photo: CDC)

In the wake of a meningitis B outbreak on two college campuses, Dr. Tom Clark and his team from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) worked closely with university and state health officials to investigate and help rein in the dangerous disease.

As acting chief of the CDC’s Meningitis and Vaccine Preventable Diseases Branch, Clark’s effort to control the occurrence of meningitis at Princeton University and the University of California at Santa Barbara was a challenging assignment, but just one aspect of a portfolio that includes research and prevention programs dealing with whooping cough, anthrax, diphtheria and tetanus.

“People would be amazed at how much work goes into protecting the public’s health,” said Clark. “They know when we come in and save the day, but they don’t know what goes on behind the scenes every day.”

In his most recent pressing case, eight students at Princeton University and four students at University of California contracted the dangerous strain of meningitis, which inflames the protective membranes covering the brain and the spinal cord. Usually, there is about one meningitis B outbreak every five years, according to Clark, so two within a few months was unexpected.

In December, Clark visited Princeton with an eight-person CDC team to meet with officials, get as much information as possible on the circumstances surrounding the outbreak of meningitis B and make decisions about who was at risk. Meningitis can be life-threatening.

Who is Tom Clark?

POSITION: Acting Chief, Meningitis and Vaccine Preventable Diseases Branch, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

RESIDENCE: Atlanta, Ga.

AGE: 44

EDUCATION: Tulane University, B.S. in biology; Oregon Health Sciences University, Master of Public Health

AWARDS: Individual and team CDC/ATSDR Awards, including a group award in 2013 for Excellence in Program or Policy Evaluation for whooping cough outbreak response

HOBBIES: Cooking, baking and watching films

Clark’s CDC team performed laboratory work to make sure a vaccine approved in Europe but not in the U.S. would protect students from the particular strain of bacteria. He quickly set up a plan of action and started the process of getting Food and Drug Administration permission to use the vaccine.

Since then, more than 5,000 students at Princeton have received the vaccine, and vaccinations began in February for as many as 18,000 students at the UC Santa Barbara campus.

Aside from the meningitis case, much of Clark’s focus of late has been directed at the resurgence of whooping cough, a disease that kills more people than polio or measles, and one that CDC thought was under control.

In 2000, the U.S. started using a vaccine known to be safer than the original and thought to be as effective. “In retrospect, not quite,” Clark said. “It wore off more quickly.”

In 2010, for the first time, CDC saw increasing cases of whooping cough in school-age children and adolescents, with 27,000 cases appearing that year. In 2012, there were 48,000 cases.

Clark leads the program that figured out the characteristics of the resurgence and the possible causes including, unexpectedly, the vaccine’s waning protection. Clark and his team now are trying to determine how CDC can help wrest back control over the disease.

“He played a real leadership role in how to approach that,” said Dr. Nancy Messonnier, a medical epidemiologist in the Division of Bacterial Diseases. “He is a great epidemiologist.”

Messonnier said Clark systematically looks at data, forms hypotheses, reads the literature, talks to people to see if the hypotheses hold up in the real world, and reviews studies in the field and in laboratories.

Clark, who trained as a pediatrician, has always been interested in infectious disease and vaccinations. He decided on a career in public health and medicine, intrigued by epidemiology and the hunt for answers based on medical events.

“You have to figure out how to ask the questions with the data you have available,” he explained. “It’s not designing experiments. It’s letting things happen and trying to figure them out.”

This article was jointly prepared by the Partnership for Public Service, a group seeking to enhance the performance of the federal government, and Go to the Fed Page of The Washington Post to read about other federal workers who are making a difference. To recommend a Federal Player of the Week, contact us at

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