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Mailman Students

Assistance by Students During  Disease Outbreaks Lightens DOH Load

The next time New York City is faced with a disease outbreak, Mailman School of Public Health students will be behind the scenes helping the health department gather clues to solve the case.

Since last summer, more than 100 students have been trained as outbreak investigators in a new partnership between the Mailman School and New York's Bureau of Communicable Diseases, a part of the city's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH).

The students are called to duty when the city needs extra help investigating outbreaks of food-borne illnesses, hepatitis, or any one of the nearly 60 diseases the bureau is responsible for tracking.

"We started the Columbia Student Surge Capacity program after the DOHMH asked the School of Public Health for students who could help the department during an outbreak and free their own staff to analyze data as it comes in," says Michael McCollum, project coordinator for the program at Mailman.

Twelve student volunteers participated in the pilot program – nicknamed "Team Epi" – during the summer of 2004. Dan Brown'06, who now works part-time for the DOHMH as a student coordinator of the program, says what interested him about the program was the ability to go outside the classroom and do real-life epidemiology. "After working on four investigations, I've learned about disease surveillance and how the health department keeps a watch over these things," Mr. Brown says.

After a day of training by DOHMH staff and Mailman faculty, the health department calls for student volunteers nearly once a week to investigate disease outbreaks, which are usually food-borne.

"A lot of times our cases involve large events, like a wedding, where some of the participants become ill. There could be 200 or more people at a wedding and the students will call all of them to find out who got sick, who didn't, who ate the fish, who ate the chicken," says Heather Hanson, a DOHMH epidemiologist who runs the program. "They have been very helpful during outbreaks because we have other tasks that we can attend to while the students collect the information."

And if a large-scale public health emergency arises in New York City, Ms. Hanson says the training the students have gained investigating food-borne illnesses could potentially be applied to SARS or anthrax investigations.

"The department has made it clear to us we're not trained to be first responders in a bioterrorism event," Mr. Brown says. "But this program was put together with such events in mind and we can help."