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UT School of Public Health students assist health department in surveillance of H1N1 flu outbreak

Students from The University of Texas School of Public Health are gaining firsthand surveillance experience in response to the recent H1N1 flu outbreak.

Student Epidemic Intelligence Society (SEIS)

The Student Epidemic Intelligence Society (SEIS) was organized in 2002 shortly after Kristy Murray, DVM, Ph.D., assistant professor of epidemiology at the UT School of Public Health joined the faculty at the UT School of Public Health. As a former Epidemic Intelligence Service Officer for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, she was invited to assist the city health department with the increasing number of West Nile virus cases being diagnosed in Houston. "I saw a need for help during times of outbreak and we had all these students who were trained and wanted the opportunity to get real public health experience out in the field," said Murray, "SEIS came out of that."

SEIS is organized to train public health graduate students to respond in support of state and local health departments during outbreaks and emergencies. Since suspicions arose of the presence of H1N1 flu in the Houston area, SEIS volunteers have been working closely with Harris County Public Health and Environmental Services and the City of Houston Department of Health and Human Services.  

"We're conducting phone interviews with potential cases and those who may have been in contact with them as well as establishing and maintaining a data management system," said volunteer and SEIS member, Jane Montealegre. Montealegre is a Ph.D. student in epidemiology at the UT School of Public Health.

SEIS volunteers are assisting epidemiologists with the health department in setting up an active surveillance system. "The surveillance system requires collecting, analyzing and monitoring data from local schools, child care facilities, hospitals, long-term care facilities and primary care physician offices," said SEIS president and volunteer Rebecca Bryson.

Trained SEIS volunteers have been particularly beneficial to the health departments in helping them efficiently process the influx of information. SEIS member and volunteer Erin Koers said, "The health departments have responded quickly to the need for heightened surveillance. The systems they have established are working very well, and with the increase in data, there has been a need for additional help to generate reports quickly." Koers recently finished the Ph.D. in epidemiology program at the UT School of Public Health and has accepted a position with the Epidemic Intelligence Service at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In addition, students have been participating in Houston-area phone banks answering questions from the public on H1N1 flu

UT School of Public Health graduate student and SEIS member Susan Lackey participated in one phone bank and said, "A number of calls from the public were questioning the true danger of the H1N1 flu and what exactly made this flu different from the regular flu we see every year." "Most people asked about symptoms of the flu, how they would know if they had been infected and how serious this outbreak may become."

Since being founded, students have worked with city and county health officials to investigate a variety of outbreaks, from salmonella to shigella to meningitis. When the George R. Brown and Astrodome were turned into shelters for Hurricane Katrina evacuees, members of the SEIS played an integral role in monitoring for diarrheal illnesses. "It has worked out well," Murray said, "The work they are doing is incredibly valuable to the community, and this practical experience offers the students networking opportunities and helps them find jobs after graduation."

In addition to gaining hands-on experience in public health surveillance, students are mentored by faculty from the CDC-supported Center for Biosecurity and Public Health Preparedness.

by Jade Waddy, Institutional Advancement