Kathy Benedict: Disease Detective

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Kathy Benedict (Ph.D. ’11, D.V.M. ’13)

For many Americans, 2014’s Ebola epidemic in West Africa began and ended with the four imported cases reported in the United States. For the people of Sierra Leone and neighboring countries, it’s an ongoing health crisis—a crisis that Kathy Benedict (Ph.D. ’11, D.V.M. ’13) and her fellow Epidemic Intelligence Service officers were charged with combating for six weeks earlier this year.

The words “Epidemic Intelligence Service” aren’t the friendliest sounding words in the book—perhaps bringing to mind a dangerous mix of James Bond-esque intrigue and deadly plagues—but CSU alumna Kathy Benedict’s service with the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta is less about code names and double agents and more about investigating public health problems in the United States and around the globe.

The Epidemic Intelligence Service began with the threat of bioterrorism during the Korean War and quickly moved on to noninfectious diseases through its investigation of the effects of lead in household products and bringing famine relief to African war zones, even leading the campaign to eradicate smallpox in the 1960s—a goal eventually realized in 1979. Even today, the Epidemic Intelligence Service investigates various epidemics around the globe—beginning an initiative to eradicate polio worldwide in 2012, investigating MERS both domestically and abroad in 2014, and organizing the largest international outbreak response in the CDC’s history to combat Ebola in West Africa.

EISO400Each year, 70–80 new EIS officers are selected from among hundreds of physicians, doctoral-level scientists, veterinarians, and other health professionals who apply to this competitive fellowship program. And though the 2-year program often serves as a gateway to successful careers, the officers share a common commitment to public health and a belief in service over self.

After working with the Sierra Leone Ministry of Health, Dr. Benedict recorded data on the deadly virus’ spread and advised on the construction of the country’s health care and epidemic response infrastructure. While many of us not trained in epidemiology would find the idea of dealing with Ebola terrifying, Dr. Benedict and her colleagues had no fear of working alongside afflicted members of the community and explained the reasoning behind the CDC sending health care professionals to West Africa.

“It was our job to not only protect the health of the people of West Africa,” explains Dr. Benedict, “but also to protect Americans from the Ebola virus. A disease can be transferred from place to place so easily these days with modern travel, so we have to be aware of foreign infectious threats.”

Kathy Benedict’s passion about serving the global community as an epidemiologist began at Colorado State University’s combined Ph.D./D.V.M. program with the intent to become a practicing veterinarian, citing the program’s excellent reputation and skilled professors. Her mentor, Dr. Paul Morley, CSU veterinarian and infectious disease expert, inspired her to become more than “just a vet”—as zoonotic diseases, those that can jump from animals to humans or vice versa, are a concern for both animal and human health. Through her doctoral work at the University, Dr. Benedict wanted to combat disease by looking at a population and also by caring for the individual.

That philosophy extends to doctor, as well as patient. When asked about the most difficult part of her deployment in Sierra Leone, Dr. Benedict replied, “The hardest part is taking time off when you’re on deployment. You need to take care of yourself so you can focus on taking care of others.”

By Haleigh Cannalte