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Applications pouring into CDC's 'disease detective' program

Posted at 4:26 PM, Feb 22, 2021

Want to be a disease detective? Applications are pouring in for a little-known program within the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Officials are expecting more interest this year, and they’re hoping it continues to highlight the importance of public health.

“Over the years, we’ve brought in 1500 future physicians and 600 future veterinarians,” says Kelly Cordeira.

She heads up the Epidemiology Elective Program at the CDC.

“It’s meant to provide students with the opportunity to gain experience with applied epidemiology in public health through a hands-on experience and mentorship by CDC scientists,” Cordeira said.

You have to be in medical or veterinary school, and you have to have completed two years of it.

They usually get a couple of hundred applicants, and they can only accept between 50 and 70 of the best candidates.

“They’re also going to bring back this new perspective about public health and population health and how it fits into what they do to treat patients on an individual level.”

Cordeira says it’s a six or 8-week unpaid program that was started in the 1970s.

Fast forward to today, and the CDC is using social media sites like Instagram to call attention to the program.

As it says in the post, students will experience real-life public health, real-life disease detectives.

“Things like how to respond to an outbreak, different steps you take, we also teach surveillance and how to work with data, how do you collect data, analyze data, how do you plan, control and intervention strategies," Cordeira said.

This year, they’re hoping they get more veterinary students.

If you ask Dr. Tracey McNamara, Professor of Veterinary Pathology at Western University of Health Sciences, that gap between medical and vet students needs to close.

"COVID-19 is a zoonotic threat meaning it's related to animals," Dr. McNamara said. "They’re saying it’s related to a bat virus, and what the world has to deal with is we haven’t been very good at detecting these emerging pandemic threats in animal reservoirs before spillovers into human populations.”

Dr. McNamara was recognized for her work with West Nile Virus.

"None of the animals in crowded urban centers are under any form of surveillance," Dr. McNamara said. "Dogs, cats, zoo animals, and local wildlife are handled by rehabilitators. And that’s not true just in the U.S. That’s around the globe we have a species gap that needs to be addressed.”

The CDC says that 75% of their students in the program are in medical schools, and 25% from veterinary schools.

They’d like those numbers to even out.

“We always want to think about how humans, the environment, and animals are interacting with each other when it comes to disease," Dr. McNamara said. "We certainly want to have the veterinary students come in and learn about their role in public health.”

A good 15% of students in the program are real-life disease detectives, also known as the Epidemic Intelligence Service.