DES MOINES — As Iowa’s lead public health protector, Dr. Patricia Quinlisk knows all about learning on the job.
Many potentially life-threatening health issues — the Ebola outbreak, the Zika virus, the H1N1 flu pandemic — were unknown infectious disease occurrences when she took on the role of state epidemiologist for the Iowa Department of Public Health 24 years ago.
“A lot of the diseases that we deal with now or have to prepare for now, we didn’t know the names of back then,” said Quinlisk, 63, a Wisconsin native who plans to retire in September as Iowa’s medical director and state epidemiologist.
“HIV was just starting to be on our radar. We were starting to understand Legionnaires’ disease,” Quinlisk said in remembering her early years with the health department when there were no cellphones and computers were in their infancy. “Things like Ebola and Zika and all of those — we didn’t even know the names of them much less putting together ways of dealing with them.”
But deal with them she and a cadre of health professionals have had to do over the years — things such as West Nile virus, Lyme disease, whooping cough, mumps, measles, meningitis, norovirus, swine flu, salmonella, chlamydia, blastomycosis fungus, listeria, E. coli, drug addictions, cryptosporidium, encephalitis and various influenza strains.
“I’ve never gotten bored in this job because every day there is something new, something you have to sort of figure out and some things that you have to try things on and see if they work and, if they don’t, then you switch gears and you try something else,” said Quinlisk, who noted she was not cut out to be a medical specialist.
“I wanted to be a jack of all trades. I wanted to go someplace where when I come into work in the morning, I’m not sure what I’m going to be working on by the end of the day, and certainly Iowa has given me that.”
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Iowa was on the front lines in 2015 when thousands of cases of the mumps were reported at Iowa college campuses, she said. Another major scare occurred with the flu pandemic of 2005 and 2006, when the vaccine for the new strain of influenza was in short supply. Health officials first told elderly Iowans to get flu shots but then had to prioritize children as the lead risk group — causing much consternation and concern.
There have been additional threats to plan for: bioterrorism such as letters laced with deadly anthrax, mad cow disease, bird flu spreading to humans. Fortunately, none of those things came to pass in Iowa, but they spurred state emergency officials to come up with all-hazard preparedness measures that include a focus on public health.
“We get ready for all of them and use the same base systems for all of them, so no matter what is thrown at us, we’re going to be able to respond,” Quinlisk said.
She twice testified before Congress after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks about public health readiness for biological terrorism and served for five years as chairwoman of the National Bio-Defense Science Board.
“Part of my job has been to help people understand truly what the risk is and what the risk isn’t and then what they can do to reduce that risk,” added Quinlisk, who came to Iowa after working with the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Oklahoma Health Department as its state epidemiologist.
“We perceive something that is a risk to our children as being bigger than a risk to ourselves. We see something new as a bigger risk than something old,” she noted, pointing to the flu that has plagued Iowans for years and still ranks as the only infectious disease in the top 10 causes of death in Iowa.
So much of the work of public health officials is preventive and prospective — reminding Iowans to wash their hands, exercise, eat healthy food, use insect repellent, get regular flu shots and timely vaccinations, and avoid people who are sick during flu season, she said.
“We’re really stopping that virus a lot,” said the state’s front-line flu fighter. “People still die from it. It’s still causing problems, but I remember at the beginning of my career, we would see these huge outbreaks in the community. Schools would even close because so many kids were sick. We just don’t see that much anymore, fortunately.”
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Another significant advancement that has greatly improved Iowans’ health, Quinlisk said, has been the cultural shift from the days when tobacco use was prevalent in restaurants, airplanes and most public places to now, when smoking is banned in virtually all public venues except most casino floors in Iowa.
Quinlisk’s replacement is Dr. Caitlin Pedati, a native of the Washington, D.C., area who comes to Iowa after a stint as an epidemiologist with the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services.
She said she is pleased her predecessor is staying on to do special projects on a contract basis for the Iowa agency and will be available for consultation. Pedati also has experience in the CDC epidemic intelligence service.
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