An Unexpected E-MERS-ency

My name is Kevin Weiss, and I spent my summer as a graduate intern at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) – Thailand Ministry of Public Health (MOPH) Collaboration (TUC) office in Bangkok, Thailand. I was working as an intern for the HIV/STI Research Program (HSRP) in the CDC’s Division of HIV/AIDS Prevention (DHAP). Acronyms upon acronyms!

My initial project focused on completing a spatial analysis of an HIV voluntary counseling and testing (VCT) dataset from a CDC-backed clinic intended to serve men who have sex with other men (MSM) and transgender women (TGW). This was a fruitful analysis as well, with fresh abstracts to be submitted for an HIV conference.

My summer took an unexpected SORT-like turn when my supervisor asked if I could set aside my practicum for a week to assist in a MERS response. I agreed!

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A peek into the EOC room at the Thai Ministry of Public Health

The TUC office was located on the campus of the MOPH, which facilitates collaboration and cooperative work. As such, when an Omani tourist who had traveled to Bangkok for medical reasons tested positive for Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), we noticed an uptick in activity around campus. I and a few other CDC-ers actually made it into one news channel’s broadcast of a joint World Health Organization-Ministry press conference.

I was asked to serve by the MOPH, with an initial focus on contact tracing for the individuals who had contact with the individual who was isolated at a government infectious disease hospital. Including medical personnel and airplane passengers, this number was estimated at over 175 people. Although I didn’t get involved too much on that end, some of the concepts and ideas used to trace contacts included use of social media platforms. The job of an outbreak-responder or epidemiologist includes thinking outside the box in manners such as these.

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Thai and English versions of the Health Advisory

As part of a MERS working group, I spearheaded the creation of a rapid respiratory infection control questionnaire for a rapid capacity assessment for 70+ regional and provincial hospitals in Thailand. I drafted an initial list of questions in English using resources from the World Health Organization, CDC, and other previous investigations. After a number of revisions, the assessment was translated into Thai and piloted among infection control nurses at a few Bangkok hospitals as a trial.

Unfortunately this was when my practicum ended. The results of the survey are intended to be used to evaluate response capacity for severe respiratory conditions country-wide and identify areas for improvement or targeting of resources.

On the whole my practicum was an excellent experience, and the MERS experience exposed me to outbreak and response in a professional capacity. Two weeks had passed and no more cases were reported, so while my survey was not used during this summer response, it can serve as a base for future response efforts.

This experience was unparalleled, providing a gratifying and meaningful time for an aspiring student. I am deeply grateful to all who allowed this to happen and for me to participate, and I hope to take these lessons and experiences and apply them in the future.

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