The outbreak of Ebola at a Texas hospital dominated the news in October 2014, as Americans anxiously watched to see whether the disease would spread beyond the two health care workers who contracted it from a dying patient.
That was the setting during the two weeks that John Jernigan, M.D., ‘86, spent in Dallas as part of a team from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) dispatched to help contain the disease.
It’s a role Jernigan knows well. As director of a CDC office that researches ways to prevent and control health care-associated infections, he’s often found himself at the center of outbreaks over the years. The names are immediately familiar. Anthrax. SARS. MERS. Influenza. And now Ebola.
“We often find ourselves at the tip of the spear for these emergent responses,” said Jernigan, who joined Emory University’s faculty in 1994 and later the CDC where he is director of the Office of HAI Prevention Research and Evaluation of the CDC’s Division of Healthcare Quality Promotion.
He traces much of his interest in public health and infectious diseases back to when he was an internal medicine resident at Vanderbilt. “In my residency training, I was very much attracted to the field of infectious diseases,” he said. “It represents a very interesting intersection between pathophysiology and the way humans interact with each other and with their environment.” The interest led him to pursue a fellowship in infectious diseases at the University of Virginia, where he studied how diseases can spread in a health care setting.
“Hospitals are often faced with conditions that can lead to a perfect storm for transmission, and if we’re not careful health care settings can serve as amplifiers for some of these pathogens,” Jernigan said.
Last year, he spent a month in Saudi Arabia investigating what was causing new cases of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, or MERS. “We discovered the vast majority of the cases were being acquired in hospital settings,” he said. “There was a lot of work to be done to provide training and guidance in stepping up infection control efforts in hospitals across the country.”
Jernigan’s training at Vanderbilt and elsewhere has prepared him to help the CDC respond to new epidemics. “In responding to outbreaks, I often find that the urgent public health need is perfectly aligned with the skills and training I can bring to bear,” Jernigan said. “And that’s professionally exhilarating.”
He called his time as a medical student at Vanderbilt “extraordinary,” shaping his understanding of how important his work was. “We were made to feel that our training was in some way at the core of everything that happened in the Medical Center. Being in that sort of environment and culture instilled in us an appreciation of the privilege and responsibility that comes with the practice of medicine.”