Ligonier native Christensen works on Ebola as CDC epidemiologist
As health care workers in West Africa work to develop new methods to contain and combat the deadly Ebola virus, a St. Vincent College graduate shared his firsthand experience with the campus that helped to begin his work in public health.
As an epidemiologist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Bryan Christensen, 35, a Ligonier native, recently went to Lagos, Nigeria, where he assisted the World Health Organization and Doctors Without Borders with construction of a new Ebola hospital and formulation of preparedness plans if the outbreak escalates.
“At no point in my education would I have ever thought I would learn how to build an Ebola hospital,” he said.
“We definitely got in there early enough, and we worked with the Nigerian government, who had enough resources,” Christensen said. He spent 15 days in the most populous country in Africa, where eight reported deaths were among the 4,951 in West African countries, including Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea. The World Health Organization declared Nigeria Ebola-free on Oct. 20.
Ebola is a rare and deadly affliction caused by infection with no approved vaccine or medicine available. Recovery depends upon the patient’s immune response.
“I was excited to do the work but unsure of what I was getting into,” Christensen said.
Forty-eight hours after a request to go to Nigeria, he was riding in an armored vehicle with an armed escort.
“It was just a little shocking coming out of the airport,” he said.
Christensen worked to convert a hospital tuberculosis ward to an Ebola treatment area that offers instruction on proper procedures for infection control, from proper water access to medical waste management.
The United States is equipped to contain the virus, so the average person shouldn’t worry, he said.
“You should just get your flu shot and wash your hands regularly,” Christensen said. “There are really other health concerns to be worried about that are not as rare.”
After graduating from St. Vincent in 2001 with a biology degree, he earned a master’s degree in environmental pollution control from Penn State in 2003 and a doctorate in environmental health engineering at Johns Hopkins University in 2009.
Since returning from Africa, he has been working from CDC headquarters in Atlanta on similar issues across the affected countries in West Africa. His work has been featured on CNN and in The New York Times.
Christensen started working with the CDC Epidemic Intelligence Service in July 2010 and won the John C. Eason Rising Star Award for junior environmental health officers in the U.S. Public Health Service in 2012. He has received awards for hazardous duty and foreign duty, citations for unit accomplishments, and an achievement medal for work with outbreak investigations and disease surveillance, including an anthrax outbreak investigation in Scotland, a chlorine gas response in northwest Arkansas, a cruise ship outbreak investigation in the Caribbean and a clean cookstove evaluation in rural western Kenya.
Christensen returns two to three times per year to visit his parents, who live in Johns-town, and has kept in touch with St. Vincent chemistry professor Matthew Fisher.
“There’s something enormously rewarding to see someone who’s gone through St. Vincent and taken what he’s learned with this undergraduate education and is making a difference with it,” Fisher said.
Christensen spoke to a few classes during his visit to St. Vincent and talked with students who are interested in public health careers.
The college hosted an information fair and forum about Ebola this month to discuss the outbreak of the disease from an interdisciplinary approach, including perspectives from faculty in cultural anthropology, sociology, biology, philosophy and finance.
“Different pieces need to be approached from the perspective of different disciplines,” Fisher said, including issues like the ethics of vaccine testing and the politics of foreign aid to help engage students “between what’s learned on campus and the world around them.”
Stacey Federoff is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-836-6660 or [email protected].