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CDC Public Health Advisor

The Public Health Advisor series at CDC was established in the summer of 1948. "Initially the primary responsibility was to identify and locate persons exposed to a sexually transmitted disease," explained Robert Kohmescher, Division of HIV/AIDS Prevention and outgoing President of the Watsonians. The PHA role soon expanded to other diseases, however, including vaccine-preventable diseases, environmental-related diseases, birth defects and injuries, smallpox eradication, tuberculosis elimination, chronic disease, and most recently bioterrorism and SARS.

Since the series inception, CDC has recruited thousands of Public Health Advisors. Many are assigned to state and local health departments, where they gain valuable first-hand disease control experience. They progress to responsible management positions in local, state, and federal public health agencies.

Many PHAs can be found in the Watsonian Society, an organization established in 1985 in honor of William C. Watson, Jr.

The Watsonians do two things, Kohmescher said. "We serve our members and [. . .] our community. One of our most basic services is communication." The Watsonians have a newsletter that goes out once a month. PHA′s are informed of job opportunities and kept abreast of relevant issues.

Public Health Advisor in Action

"There are also social activities, which provide good opportunities for networking," said Philip Talboy, deputy director, in CDC′s Division of Injury and Disability Outcomes and Programs. Talboy served as the Watsonian′s President, 2004—2005. He also spoke of the organization′s community service. "Our community service accomplishments include two Habitat for Humanity Houses funded and built by Watsonian Society members."

Kohmescher said that is one thing PHAs share, a commitment to the community. "We do feel close ties to the communities where we live and work. We get to understand the problems of the people. It′s important to us to give back to those communities."

Kohmescher also noted "an extremely strong sense of camaraderie. "[There is] a strong sense of family among PHAs," he said. "Many of us have shared common experiences. We have worked in city, county or state health departments and with local physicians, learning and working in public health from the most basic level. That experience is a common bond. . . ."

Moving around is another common experience. Kohmescher, for instance, was transferred six times. Stacy Harper, PHA, NCIPC, Division of Injury and Disability Outcomes and Programs, said, "My daughter went to three different first grades!" Harper′s father was a PHA and Watsonian. She is currently chair of the organization's professional development committee, which includes the mentorship program.

"The goal of the program is to enhance the quality and value of the Public Health Advisor [. . .] as an integral part of the public health workforce of CDC/ATSDR," Harper said. "Mentors advise and counsel PHAs on professional and personal issues as they affect job performance and career objectives." The idea is to advance the professional skills of PHAs that will make the series and the individuals more essential and more efficient in the changing world of public health.

All those moves did have positive results, however. Kohmescher explained, "When you have to uproot your family and sell your house so often, you have to adapt to new places so you learn to listen and to respect different ways of doing things."

Harper said one of their strengths "is bringing positives from one health department to another. We share experiences and we share what works."

The Watsonians share where they can. In 2004, the organization gave a $2,000 mini-grant to Camp Breathe Easy, a camp for kids with Asthma. Habitat for Humanity and Hands on Atlanta are other examples of the Watsonians will to help. One person really behind this was Bob Keegan, who has been instrumental in polio and measles eradication programs.

There′s a long and proud esprit de corps among PHAs, including many who have moved into top management. And there is an illustrious list of honorary PHAs, for example, Dr. David Sencer, Dr. Bill Foege, and Dr. Walt Dowdle.

Full/active membership in the Watsonians is open to all current and past Public Health Advisors and Associate Membership is open to all others. Members include a variety of professionals in management and leadership roles at CDC and in state and local health departments. For more information, go to www.cdc.gov/watsonian.

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