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May 1, 2013

Risky Business


Photo Credit: TrujilloPaumier

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ILANA SCHAFER, 30: The Disease Detective

Time on the job: Ten months

Risky moments: Visiting outbreak areas

Early education: She trained as a veterinarian

"As an epidemic intelligence service officer at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, I work with rare, contagious, and deadly viruses like Ebola and Marburg. Patients usually develop symptoms such as high fever and severe hemorrhages within a week and can die within days.

When an Ebola or Marburg outbreak occurs, I immediately jump on a plane to the site. We need to find out how many people are sick, where and how they might have contracted the virus, and if they have passed it on. The faster we're on the ground, the faster we can contain further cases.

Once I'm at the site, I interview anyone with symptoms: Did they have any contact with wildlife or anyone else who is sick? Managing this data is how we keep track of the outbreak. For every case, I try to find everyone they've been around, even before they exhibit symptoms. Patients are placed in isolation; on the rare occasions when I visit them, I wear full-body covering, a respirator and face shield, and multiple pairs of gloves. It's heartbreaking to see people suffering, and some patients I've interviewed didn't make it.

Usually, Ebola or Marburg outbreaks happen every few years. But just in recent months, in Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, we've had four. We don't know if that's because more outbreaks are occurring or if we're just getting better at detecting them. I don't worry about infection—if you protect yourself, there's very little risk of contracting either virus—but my family was definitely worried the first time I traveled to an outbreak site. Now they're getting used to it." —As told to W.J.

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