Dr. Benjamin Silk is a lieutenant commander with the U.S. Public Health Service and an expert on tracking the bacteria listeria that can cause foodborne sickness and death. He played a key role in CDC’s response to the recent multi-state listeria outbreak. Dr. Silk served as a CDC Epidemic Intelligence Service (EIS) officer from 2008 to 2010, and has 16 years of experience in public health disease tracking, disease investigation, and research to prevent and control infectious disease.
We recently spoke to Dr. Silk about his work. We are also reposting his video blog from a few weeks ago.
What do you do?
I’ve always wanted to do meaningful work that I believed in. I was in the Peace Corps in El Salvador in the 1990s, working on rural water sanitation. It was a former war zone and there was a need to rebuild the infrastructure and improve sanitation. I was working with the community and trying to promote safe water and sanitation, but I didn’t realize there was a more systematic way to do it – and that was through public health. So I went back to graduate school and got into disease investigation.
Now I focus on the tracking and investigation of foodborne diseases. Most of my time is dedicated to listeriosis, which is caused by the bacteria Listeria monocytogenes. Listeriosis is rare, but an important public health issue because it can severely sicken or even kill people – especially older adults, people with weakened immune systems, developing fetuses, and newborns.
What personal experience are you proudest of during your career?
First, I’m proud of all the work it took to get through graduate school and get the level of training I have now – all those hours of studying to get where I am. In my role in the current national listeria outbreak, I have been able to help coordinate CDC’s response using the best science available as our guide. I am also very proud to be part of the effective partnerships that CDC has established with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and many public health departments and laboratories – especially the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. Our collaborations in tracking disease, investigating food outbreaks, and discovering where they originate were essential to the rapid identification and removal of the contaminated cantaloupes that caused the most recent listeria outbreak.
How does your work protect people and save lives?
Controlling outbreaks is the most immediate way we prevent disease and save lives. That’s always inspiring because we can quickly see the effects of our work when the outbreak ends. The impact of our public health actions, including protecting the food supply and educating consumers through the media, is always most potent during an outbreak.
The current listeriosis outbreak is already the second largest listeriosis outbreak known to have ever happened in the United States. Therefore, we are certain that our rapid investigation and public health actions prevented a large number of illnesses and deaths among people who would have eaten the cantaloupes had they remained in the food supply longer. This historic outbreak will also allow us to learn more about how to investigate listeria, and especially how to prevent contamination of cantaloupes and other foods in the future. These lessons will be very valuable to the public health and regulatory officials who are working constantly to prevent listeria outbreaks.