Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Getting to Know a Public Health Nurse

By this time, I’m sure most of you have heard about the Salmonella outbreak related to products containing certain types of peanut butter. It still amazes me that epidemiologists are able to narrow down a source for a national outbreak affecting hundreds of people. One of the exciting parts of my job is that, often, I get to be involved in these investigations. With this outbreak, I had the chance to interview someone who had become sick with this particular type of Salmonella.
Certain illnesses are required to be reported to the state health department, and every day our team is notified of Jefferson County residents who have tested positive for a reportable condition. Salmonella is a “reportable” illnesses, and after receiving the original report, I started our standard investigation for Salmonella infection. After the first interview, I heard from the state health department that this individual “matched” an outbreak being tracked nationally. From there, we did more and more focused interviews. Initially, this individual thought the illness came from eating some undercooked chicken or cleaning out the cage of a pet snake. (Both legitimate ways of getting a Salmonella infection.) After further interviews, we discovered that peanut butter sandwich crackers were eaten 6 to 7 times each week, prior to the illness.
Though we regularly deal with diagnosed illnesses, at times we receive reports of illnesses in the community that have not yet been identified. School nurses may call to report a rash illness in their schools, or a nursing home may call for guidance with an outbreak of a diarrhea in their residents. This can start with a call to one of the communicable disease control nurses, and depending on the situation, different people within the county health department may become involved. For example, a person who calls with a complaint of getting sick after eating at a restaurant may need to speak with an Environmental Health Specialist. Other situations require intervention by our epidemiologists. Each person plays different roles at different times, but the overall goal is the same- to protect Jefferson County citizens from infectious diseases.