Fresh Voices From the Field—The Human Face of EpidemiologyPosted on by
This is the third in our ongoing “Fresh Voices From the Field” series, where we hear from ASPPH (Association of School and Programs of Public Health) Global Health Fellows working throughout the world. Global Health Fellows are recent Master of Public Health or Doctoral graduates placed in CDC global health offices in Atlanta and abroad. They work on a range of priority public health issues and bring a fresh perspective to CDC’s efforts in the field. (See other “Fresh Voices” blogs.)
As a second year Association of Schools of Public Health (ASPH) Global Epidemiology fellow, I have spent approximately one year on Temporary Deployment in Bangladesh, leading a study of risk factors for infection by Nipah virus: a disease that causes encephalitis and severe respiratory distress and has a case fatality rate over 75% in Bangladesh. On a particular field visit for Nipah virus surveillance, a Bangladeshi medical epidemiologist and I finally reached the remote hospital where we sought to evaluate a patient with encephalitis. We found him: an unconscious boy, held in his mother’s arms, saliva foaming at his mouth. His lips moved ceaselessly, mouthing silent screams of pain. We would not know for days whether his blood sample would test positive for Nipah virus. I carried out my investigative tasks: identifying his latest contacts, activities, approximate onset of illness, and possible exposures. I used the tools I was given to better understand his condition and to inform measures of prevention for this distressing encounter.
Experiences like this bedside visit helped me to not only see the human face of the disease I was approaching as a public health problem, but also the practicality and usefulness of epidemiology. Intellectually, I knew that the scientific study that brought me to this child’s bedside was important, that in the fullness of time it may alleviate the suffering not only of one patient, but could bring relief to many. But I also discovered that I couldn’t address this sort of suffering as scientific inquiry alone; that we must master the art of caring and truly understanding another’s condition so that we may one day better address the complexity of human needs. I looked at this Bangladeshi boy not as study material, but rather as a child in agony, the alleviation of whose pain is the greatest need in the world and whose pain we, as a scientific community, are working to prevent.