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5 Questions with Dr. Cara Burns on Her Work to Help Eradicate Polio

Posted on by Curt Shannon

This 1963 poster featured CDC’s national symbol of public health – Wellbee – and included the date, time, and location of where one could receive a vaccination for polio and other diseases. Photo courtesy of the CDC Public Health Image Library. 

Dr. Cara Burns is team lead of CDC’s Polio Molecular Epidemiology Laboratory within the Polio and Picornavirus Laboratory Branch, Division of Viral Diseases, National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Disease. We asked her about her work:  

1. What do you do at CDC? 

As a research microbiologist, I lead a team of scientists who support the worldwide polio eradication program by sequencing viral genes and tracking polioviruses as they spread. We can determine if polioviruses have been imported from one country to another. We can also figure out where children are being missed by the immunization teams, by combining the sequencing information with information about where and when people are paralyzed by polio. This combined approach is called molecular epidemiology, which is an important part of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative.  CDC works with other major partners such as the World Health Organization, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, UNICEF and Rotary International. 

 2. How is your work saving lives and protecting people? 

 Polio can cause death or paralysis, and can devastate communities. Until polio is completely eradicated, the whole world is at risk for a return to the terror of polio. Our work helps to target immunization efforts to the places that need it the most, thereby protecting people and saving lives. This approach is working; polio cases were at an all-time low in 2011.
3. What professional experience are you most proud of?
 I am honored to have worked with scientists and public health experts from all over the world to help get rid of a disease forever. It’s rare for a scientist to be part of such an immediate, practical application of science. And the global scale is amazing! Polio has been around for thousands of years, but is on the brink of being eradicated. India, which at one time had half the world’s polio cases annually, has not had a case of wild poliovirus in more than 15 months!
 4. What is the biggest challenge you face in doing your work? 
It is challenging to do good science while helping to support a large global program like polio eradication. At this stage, the major challenges of the eradication program are management and accountability issues. 
5. What is the most important thing for the public to know about what you do? 
CDC scientists work to protect every child from the terror of polio.
 Prior to working as team lead of CDC’s Polio Molecular Epidemiology Laboratory , Dr. Burns worked on poliovirus molecular epidemiology in addition to using poliovirus as a model for rational vaccine design from 1998 – 2006. She has been a co-principal investigator of grants for innovative vaccine design technology over the past four years. She has a Bachelor’s degree in Biochemistry from Texas A&M University and a Ph.D. in Cellular, Viral and Molecular Biology from the University of Utah, where she studied poliovirus RNA replication. Dr. Burns did postdoctoral training at the University of Washington in Seattle. Her family has enjoyed sailing in Seattle, Canada, and Georgia; and whitewater rafting trips in New Mexico, Utah, and Idaho. 
Posted on by Curt Shannon

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