Reporter recounts fellowship visit to CDC

About Pia Christensen

Pia Christensen (@AHCJ_Pia) is the managing editor/online services for AHCJ. She manages the content and development of healthjournalism.org, coordinates AHCJ's social media efforts and edits and manages production of association guides, programs and newsletters.

This is a guest post from Winnie Yu, a freelance journalist based in Voorheesville, N.Y. She was among this year’s class of AHCJ-CDC Health Journalism Fellows who spent last week studying public health issues at two Atlanta campuses of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The fellows met with Ali S. Khan, M.D., M.P.H., assistant surgeon general and director of the CDC's Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response.

The fellows met with Ali S. Khan, M.D., M.P.H., assistant surgeon general and director of the CDC's Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response. (Photo: Len Bruzzese/AHCJ)

Life can get lonely when you work as a freelance writer. So it was a real thrill for me last week when I got the chance to attend the AHCJ-CDC Health Journalism Fellowship and listen to experts from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention discuss the most pressing health issues of our day.

Ten journalists from around the country came to Atlanta to hear presentations on topics as varied as motor vehicle safety, vaccines, patient safety and prescription drug abuse. It was quickly apparent that the CDC is much more than the authority on when to get your vaccines.

We heard from numerous experts, including Mike Bell, M.D., associate director for Infection Control for the Division of Healthcare Quality Promotion; William Dietz, M.D., Ph.D., director of the Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity and Obesity for the National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention & Health Promotion; and Ann Albright, Ph.D., R.D., director of the Division of Diabetes Translation for the National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. We also enjoyed a brief presentation from the CDC’s director Thomas R. Frieden, M.D., M.P.H.

Each day ended with a tour. We saw the CDC’s emergency operations center, walked through the tobacco lab and peered in at scientists probing for foodborne illnesses. We looked at viruses under a microscope, marveled at slides the size of a pinhead (used under an electron microscope) and winced at the amount of nicotine that smokers continue to inhale from cigarettes.

And while I couldn’t get the tour guide to tell us where the United States hides its stockpile of smallpox – Russia has the only other one – I was amazed by the challenges that researchers must endure in order to work in the pathogen labs, including chemical showers and protective suits that preclude regular visits to the bathroom. Not surprisingly, we learned that a calm and even temperament is a requirement for the job.

No doubt, some of the information we already knew: Americans weigh more than ever. Autism is on the rise. Diabetes is a major health issue. But we also learned that polio remains a persistent problem in some parts of the world, tuberculosis still afflicts some segments of our population and the United States takes its role as a world leader seriously when it comes to public health.

It was truly an honor to be part of this fellowship, to get an up-close glimpse of the CDC and to share my time with a great group of journalists who were smart, funny and great dinner companions. I have no doubt the experience will spawn story ideas, beef up our source lists and provide ample background for future articles.  I know it will for me.

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