Disease Detective

Miguel Perez| Editor-in-chief

New professor brings experience, stories of disease outbreaks during her time with Center for Disease Control

The recent outbreak of Ebola in West Africa has caused quite a stir in the international media. The case of American Kent Brantly, who caught the disease while trying to treat its victims in Liberia, has captured national attention. Fortunately for residents of North Texas, a scientist who specializes in these types of contagions is coming to campus.
Seema Yasmin was hired in May as a professor in practice. She brings with her an impressive resume in the fields of health and medicine. After studying medicine and surgery at Cambridge University, Yasmin served as an epidemic intelligence service officer for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC, where she investigated disease outbreaks.
“It was a very exciting job,” she said. “From day to day, you didn’t know what outbreak was going to happen. You’d pick up the phone and somebody would say ‘We need assistance, can you come help?’”
Yasmin said that her role at the CDC involved a lot of detective work because officers would have to use displayed symptoms to uncover the outbreak.
While at the CDC, she worked on several noteworthy cases, including an outbreak of botulism in an Arizona maximum-security prison that was causing inmates to acquire paralysis.
“We’d go in and say, ‘We need to do a scientific study that has enough power to provide results that are meaningful; that means we need to interview 200 max-security inmates,’ and the warden of the prison will just look at you and laugh,” she said. “We needed privacy so the inmate wasn’t affected by having the correctional officers nearby. We wanted to be in a room with them, we had to be behind glass, so that was challenging in that regard.”
Yasmin said that case was particularly difficult due to the distrust that inmates in a federal prison had of employees of a federal agency.
Another outbreak she worked on involved an outbreak of Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever among Native Americans. She recalled children dying from the disease that could have been saved by a simple antibiotic.
It was this sort of experience, seeing people suffer unnecessarily, that encouraged her to go into the field of public health in the first place. The daughter of an AIDS activist, Yasmin was outraged by the fact that people with HIV had such a stigma surrounding them. She became a treatment advocate for young people living with HIV, where she learned about the social aspects of illness and disease.
“I met a young man as a teenager in (England) who passed away last year,” Yasmin said. “He was only 25 or 26, and he passed away in London when we have a fantastic, free health care system in England. Nobody should get sick from HIV, let alone die from an AIDS-related illness, but it turned out that he hadn’t been taking his medications, again because there was some level of denial about having the illness and there’s so much stigma.”
After completing medical school, she started doing clinical work in London. There she saw some patients going through what she described as a “revolving door”: patients would come in from something like massive liver failure due to alcoholism one week and then show up again after they had already been treated for problem.

This is where she became interested in the idea of population-level health and preventative medicine, taking a step back to see how the medical system can prevent the patient from succumbing to alcoholism in the first place, for example.
“My interest in public health really started when I became frustrated with clinical medicine, but my aim is to bring public health to life for the students at UTD – to show them how interesting and how broad it is,” she said. “Public health is everything from outbreaks of infectious disease to mental health to gun violence, so I really just hope to make them aware of what public health is.”
Yasmin will also be working as a staff writer for The Dallas Morning News. She has already written several stories for the paper and has been featured as a guest on KERA, as well as on KXAS-TV describing why doctors chase outbreaks like Ebola.
Yasmin said she came about the field of journalism after her time at the CDC was finished.
“The maximum amount of time you can be in the epidemic intelligence service is two years,” she said. “As that came to an end, I thought ‘What can I do that’s going to be half as interesting as this?’ I thought ‘If I can’t be a disease detective, what about teaching or reporting those stories and telling those stories?’”
Yasmin, who completed work as a global journalism fellow at the University of Toronto, said working with government as an outsider has presented a significant challenge. Her first story for the Dallas Morning News was about the impact on public health children crossing the border unaccompanied brings. She said dealing with tight-lipped government agencies proved to be difficult to get information.
Despite her fair share of setbacks, Yasmin said she sees her work as a journalist complimenting her work as a professor.
“My reporting inspires my teaching,” she said. “I’m writing a story about Chikungunya, which is a virus that is being spread by mosquitoes. There’s an outbreak in the Caribbean, and now we have people travelling to the Caribbean from Texas coming back home to Texas. So already I have a class that’s about mosquito and vector-borne diseases and this kind of feeds into that.”
She also said that she is going to factor in the recent outbreak of Ebola into her curriculum.
Even though working as a professor and as a journalist simultaneously can bring stress, Yasmin does not seem to be nervous about the workload.
“When you really enjoy something it doesn’t really feel like work,” she said. “I’m going to get to call four of the world’s experts on Chikungunya or whatever I’m writing to satisfy my curiosity and be an advocate for any readers out there who are also concerned about a particular disease.”

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