Principal Associate, U.S. Health
Environmental health, epidemiology, flu
“I have been in situations where we have received a call saying that people are dying and they don’t know why,” Danielle Hunt, PhD, says about disease outbreaks of unknown causes. “You then have to get on an airplane and use your epidemiology and investigative skills to help you identify the risk and protect the health of the public.”
As an epidemiologist and environmental health practitioner, Hunt served as an Epidemic Intelligence Service fellow for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) prior to working at Abt. In that role, she traveled around the world to help uncover the causes of outbreaks. In one particular case, she was part of a team that determined a tainted cough syrup was poisoning people across Panama. In another case, she helped identify a new type of liver disease in Ethiopia resulting from exposure to seeds of a toxic plant.
Tools to Determine Causes of an Outbreak
At the beginning of the outbreak in Panama, Hunt recalls that the team did not know whether the cause was infectious or not. “We suspected that there was an environmental component at play but when you don’t know the exact route of exposure, you have to rely on a core set of epidemiological tools,” she says. “The steps of an outbreak investigation are the same whether you are responding to an international epidemic or a group of people who are sick after a church picnic.”
Her time at CDC allowed her to better understand the intersection of infectious and environmental epidemiology. “Environmental factors, such as climate change and sanitation and food practices, impact developed and developing countries both and are important determinants of infectious diseases,” she says. “The environment plays a critical role in prevention efforts and global health security.”
Helping Other Countries Assess Flu Burden
Today, Hunt’s epidemiology and management skills drive Abt’s international infant influenza study in Nicaragua, Albania, Jordan and the Philippines, along with a cohort influenza study focused on pregnant women in India, Peru and Thailand. Hunt works with partners to plan these studies and provides implementation and data collection training to support the international teams. While the studies monitor infectious disease, she says they also inform national priorities.
“Low and middle income countries can be faced with myriad health-related issues and competing priorities,” she explains. “They often have to decide how best to allocate their limited resources. By better understanding the burden of influenza in their country, we hope to inform prevention and treatment efforts among priority populations.”