Expect The Unexpected
Public health laboratory scientists are at the forefront of testing for infectious disease outbreaks caused through the natural spread or the intentional release of existing, emerging, or re-emerging biological agents. These can include disease outbreaks caused by high risk pathogens such as Ebola or by other high risk pathogens used as agents of bioterrorism, such as anthrax sent through letters in the mail. Nationwide public health laboratory scientists, through testing and data sharing, work with epidemiologists and the CDC to conduct surveillance of infectious disease agents in order to effectively prevent, manage and treat infections.
Public health laboratory scientists are involved in testing for disease outbreaks. These disease outbreaks can occur as a result of emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases that occur locally, nationally, or globally. These outbreaks can result from the natural spread of a biological agent, including a high risk pathogen such as Ebola, or one that is released intentionally as a biological threat agent.
Public health laboratory scientists across the US work with epidemiologists and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to conduct year-round surveillance for emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases. Emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases are those that are new to a geographic area, have recently changed, or have recently developed resistance to commonly used antibiotics and antivirals. Surveillance for these bacteria, viruses, and fungi is important in order to prevent infections and quickly diagnose and treat those who are infected. Examples of these include Ebola virus, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome virus, and Chikungunya virus.
Ebola is a disease caused by the Ebola virus that is severe and often fatal in humans and nonhuman primates and is classified as a re-emerging infectious disease that has the potential to be used as a bioterrorism agent. Ebola was first identified in 1976 and is largely limited to Africa; however it can spread to other areas by way of an infected source. It is characterized by high fever, vomiting, diarrhea, muscle pain and severe internal bleeding. It can be spread from person to person by direct contact with infected bodily fluids like blood, sweat, urine, saliva and feces. The recent outbreak in West Africa where over 10,000 people died put US health officials on high alert due to the possibility of the spread of Ebola in the US through international travel.
Public health laboratory scientists played a part in helping to contain disease spread by testing samples to determine if patients carried the virus into the US.
Public health laboratory scientists are also involved in testing environmental samples and clinical specimens for the presence of other high risk pathogens such as bioterrorism agents. These agents are bacteria, viruses or toxins which occur in their natural form or have been modified to increase their ability to cause disease and which are released into the environment to cause sickness or death in people, plants and animals. Other public health laboratory scientists and chemists detect the exposure of people to chemical threat agents that have been released intentionally to cause harm.
Public health laboratory scientists must always be prepared to test for any of these agents to help minimize harm and exposure of its citizens to naturally occurring disease outbreaks or to those intentionally introduced into the population.
Lesson Plans & Experiments
- This Public Broadcasting Service lesson provides links to multimedia resources for Ebola outbreak investigation, including a clip from the movie Outbreak, a book excerpt, data analysis worksheets, and a critical thinking project.
- These sites provide various resources for exploring the Ebola epidemic. The lesson plan explains why Ebola has recently become a worldwide concern and compares and contrasts Ebola and flu.
Learning From Disaster: Exploring the Ebola Epidemic
- This lesson plan teaches students about the Ebola virus through short videos, Q&A and a discussion about how to contain the outbreak in West Africa.
Do You Dread the Spread?
- This lesson plan teaches students how quickly diseases can spread globally and has students think critically about possible concerns and solutions.
When Contagion Spreads: Crowdsourcing Disease Outbreak
- This lesson plan teaches students about the nature of disease outbreaks in relation to public health and epidemiology. The lesson is based on the movie Contagion and describes a fictional influenza pandemic.
Make You Own Hand Sanitizer
- In this lesson from the CDC Ambassador Program students are asked to investigate increased mosquito activity, the potential for West Nile virus (WNV) transmission to humans, and to create WNV infection prevention posters. In many parts of the US, public health laboratory scientists conduct surveillance for WNV and other mosquito-borne viruses so the public is aware of their risk of infection and can take proper preventive action.
- In this lesson from the CDC Ambassador Program students use the Internet to research hantavirus pulmonary syndrome or lymphocytic choriomeningitis and then produce a public service announcement (poster, brochure, etc.) to educate others about the disease. An important part of the job of public health laboratory scientists is educating medical providers and the public on emerging diseases and ways to prevent infection.
Games & Apps
- This is a fun and interactive app where the student becomes a Disease Detective by traveling the world chasing outbreaks like the real-life ones CDC Disease Detectives help fight.
- This site includes trading cards describing some of the infectious diseases (including Ebola) that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention studies.
Infectious Agent Board Game
- This site includes a board game that teaches students about various bacteria and viruses that cause diseases of public health importance that are tested by public health laboratory scientists.
Mapping Disease Spread
- A team from Boston Children’s Hospital uses online sources for disease outbreak monitoring and real-time surveillance of emerging public health threats in order to facilitate early detection.
- These sites provide various resources for exploring the Ebola epidemic. The lesson plan explains why Ebola has recently become a worldwide concern and compares and contrasts Ebola and flu. The second site contains an interactive animated movie, quiz, activity, Q&A, game and FYI.
Bioterrorism a New Topic in Science Class
- This article describes a really simple activity using cups filled with water and sodium hydroxide that illustrates how an infection can spread throughout the population.
STAR-LITE (Safe Techniques Advance Research – Laboratory Interactive Training Environment)
- This is an interactive simulation designed to increase laboratory safety awareness developed by the Division of Occupational Health and Safety (DOAHS) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) that teaches students how to work safely in the laboratory.
- This is a short video that covers the geographical location, source, strains, transmission and symptoms of the Ebola virus.
What We Know and Don’t Know About Ebola - TEDEd
- This is a short (4:00) animated video that explains the Ebola epidemic in Africa including location, source, strains, transmission, symptoms and environmental hazards that play a role in the deadly virus.
- An engaging and informative (4:00) video clip from Sci-Show covering key topics such as the history of Ebola, how it is transmitted, identifying a specific species out of the five Ebola viruses, and comparing Ebola to other diseases.
- A 27-minute documentary film based in Sierra Leone, West Africa where Ebola has rampantly spread and contaminated many of its villages. This film shows surveillance teams search for infected victims and move them to hospitals for isolation and treatment.
Video Worksheet: http://newshour-tc.pbs.org/Frontline-Ebola-Outbreak-video-worksheet-edited.pdf
Disease Early Warning
- This is a short video (3:47) that explains how information technology can be used to provide early warning signs about disease outbreaks.
Germy the Germ
- This short video provides a description of how germs are spread.
If you want to know more...
- The following two sources describe the spread of an infectious disease and are relevant to the spread of a deadly disease such as Ebola.
- The Hot Zone book by Richard Preston
- Outbreak movie by Wolfgang Petersen based on The Hot Zone book
Emerging Infectious Diseases Journal - CDC
- This website contains publications about the CDC’s efforts to combat emerging infectious diseases from around the world. Public health laboratory scientists work closely with CDC scientists to detect emerging diseases.
National Center for Infectious Diseases - CDC
- This website contains links to information for many emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases.
National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases - CDC
- This website contains links to information about current outbreaks, describes what the Center does, and has many stories and multimedia resources.
Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response - CDC
- This site describes many specific agents listed A -Z that could potentially be used as bioterrorism agents. It includes information for the general public as well as information for professionals such as public health laboratory scientists. Educators may find this additional resource material helpful.
Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response - CDC
- Fact sheets on a number of bioterrorism agents including anthrax, botulism, brucellosis, plague, smallpox, tularemia and viral hemorrhagic fever. Educators may find this additional resource material helpful.