When several hundred people got sick after eating at a church-sponsored dinner in Oskaloosa last year, Dr. Patricia Quinlisk kicked into overdrive.
Quinlisk, state epidemiologist since November 1994, and her colleagues worked long hours to find out what was causing the illness, making sure sick people got treatment, and warning the public about future risks.
"It was the best-coordinated investigation of any outbreak in Iowa," said Jane Getchell, associate director of the University of Iowa Hygienic Laboratory at Oakdale. Getchell credits the investigation's success to Quinlisk, whom Mary Gilchrist, the laboratory's director, calls a "dynamo."
Now Quinlisk is in a bigger race. This time she's speeding to beat a potential Iowa outbreak of hepatitis A—a situation being monitored by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.
From hepatitis A to kombucha tea, it's Quinlisk's job to investigate the cause of disease outbreaks and decide what to do about them. It's a line of work she fell into almost by accident. Trained at the famed Johns Hopkins University and Centers for Disease Control, Quinlisk appears to be well-prepared for the task.
Public Health Career
She graduated from medical school at the University of Wisconsin but chose a. career in public health over clinical medicine after realizing she had a love for "shoe-leather epidemiology. "
That's the study of the causes, occurrences and control of disease by investigations in the field rather than the library or laboratory,
She got a taste for the work as a Peace Corps volunteer in Nepal, she said. She and colleagues went from village to village, doing blood tests to determine the cause of widespread anemia.
"None of us knew anything about epidemiology," she said. "But we ended up with good data, and I loved it."
The thing about Quinlisk that stands out, Gilchrist said, "is that she's able and willing to make definitive decisions based on the scientific background of the subject. She can cut through all the nonrelevant issues to focus on what needs to be done."
Getchell and Gilchrist work closely with Quinlisk during investigations. When there's an outbreak, Quinlisk and her colleagues must gather evidence—often in the form of suspect food—and get it to the hygienic laboratory for analysis.
If the food turns out to be contaminated, a source of the contamination must be determined, and that often involves a tedious search for victims, all of whom must be interviewed.
During such outbreaks, Quinlisk puts in as many as 80 hours a week. Her normal weeks are from 45 to 50 hours.
But normal weeks are a luxury in her line of work. Besides the current problem in the Des Moines area with the infection of a restaurant worker with hepatitis A, Quinlisk has dealt in the past 2 1/2 years with public concern over hepatitis B, influenza, salmonella poisoning, tuberculosis, encephalitis, e. coli infection, meningitis and legionnaire's disease.
As state epidemiologist, Quinlisk believes communicating with the public is an important part of the job. She writes papers and articles, makes lots of public presentations, and spends a lot of time in media interviews.
"Getting information to the public is a huge piece of the job," she said. "And we couldn't do it without the media."
Her approach is to be aggressive about announcing potential health problems "even before there's proof" about the source of an illness.
That was the case with kombucha tea, the yeast-tea-and-sugar brew that was the rage in Iowa and around the country in 1995— until several Iowans got seriously ill.
Quinlisk urged the public to avoid the stuff even before it was known for sure the tea was the source of the illness. As it turned out, medical investigators never could say with certainty that the tea was to blame.
But Quinlisk is satisfied that her public warnings were the right course.
"I'd rather err on the side of taking reasonable steps to protect the public," she said.
Born Feb. 12, 1955. Raised in La Crosse, Wis.
St. Olaf College, Northfield, Minn., 1972-74; Soochow University, Taipei, Taiwan and University of Chiangmai, Thailand, 1974-75; University of Wisconsin, Stevens Point, Wis., bachelor's degree, 1977; Madison General Hospital, Madison, Wis., medical technology, 1977-78; Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, Md., master's in public health, 1984; University of Wisconsin, Madison, doctor of medicine, 1988.
Peace Corps, Nepal, 1979-82; Epidemic Intelligence Service, Centers for Disease Control, Atlanta, 1989-91; various jobs, including state epidemiologist, at the Oklahoma State Department of Health, 1991-94; state epidemiologist/medical director, Iowa Department of Public Health, 1994-present.
This page last reviewed November 17, 2004
United States Department of Health Human Services