Dr. Rana Hajjeh, director of Division of Bacterial Diseases at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, will always remember when the vaccine for the Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib) virus was first available in the United States.
“I remember that day very clearly, because my daughter was born in 1990 shortly after the vaccine became available and was recommended by our advisory committee on immunization practices here in this country,” Hajjeh told Federal Drive with Tom Temin. “She was among the first kids in the U.S. to get it.”
The Partnership for Public Service Monday presented Hajjeh and her team at the CDC with the Federal Employee of the Year Medal for their effort in convincing many of the poorest countries in the world to include the Hib vaccine in their vaccination programs. This initiative is expected to save an estimated 7 million children by 2020.
The Federal Employee of the Year Medal is one of the Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medals the Partnership presents annually to members of the federal workforce in recognition of excellence in civil service.
“The Service to America Medals are a powerful illustration of the good that government workers do every day, and their impact on our lives,” Partnership President and CEO Max Stier said, in a release. “The best way to strengthen our government is to build on what is working. We will never get what we want from government if all we do is tear it down.”
The Hib virus is one of the main causes of bacterial meningitis and pneumonia in children. While an effective vaccine has been available for 24 years in the U.S., many developing countries did not include it in their immunization programs until recently.
“There were many obstacles for these countries to adopt the vaccine,” Hajjeh said. “As a result, their kids continued to die from meningitis and severe pneumonia. It was estimated that about 400,000 kids each year around the world died from just this one bacteria.”
The challenge for Hajjeh and her team at the CDC was not to force the vaccine on those countries, but help them to make the decision to add it it to their immunization programs based on the available evidence.
“In this case, we had to provide countries with the data, because many of them did not really have access to the data or even if there was data, they didn’t fully understand the significance of that for their own country,” she said.
As infectious disease epidemiologists, Hajjeh and her team’s responsibility is to make sure that infectious diseases are kept at bay in the U.S. and the rest of the world.
“What we do is we track these infectious diseases usually on a regular basis through our surveillance systems,” she said. “Whenever we detect any signal that there is a problem going on, an increase in the rate of a certain disease, an outbreak, we make sure that we are implementing measures to control the outbreak and then also to prevent further disease.”
This type of work keeps Hajjeh and her team very busy. She was in the Saudi Arabia in June for the Coronavirus outbreak and is about to head to Africa for CDC’s response to the Ebola outbreak.
“This is one of the most challenging epidemics that CDC and the rest of the world has dealt with, actually,” she said. “When President Obama was here just a few days ago at the CDC, in his statement, he said that this is the largest international response that CDC has ever been part of.”
Hajjeh admitted that battling the Ebola outbreak in Africa will be a challenge.
“The main problem is that the epidemiology of the virus has changed,” she said. “We used to see it mainly in rural areas in Africa, where it was easier to control because it was mainly like small villages and you could quarantine and do much easier tracking of the cases. Now that it is in urban environments, it made it very difficult to track and to control.”
The basic problem, she added, is that the overall public health infrastructure in these less developed countries is limited. That means more resources need to be introduced to ramp up hospital response in areas like infection control.
Thanks to the more advanced health infrastructure and hygiene, Americans don’t experience the same level of infectious disease outbreaks as other countries do. Hajjeh said that it was important for the public to understand why it was necessary for the U.S. to get involved in combating outbreaks in other countries.
“Ensuring children in these countries have healthy lives is really not just global responsibility, and I think a very important role for the U.S. to do, but it’s also important for our national security overall,” she said. “As we have seen recently, with the Ebola outbreak, the fact that these countries had such poor health infrastructure is becoming very quickly a global public health emergency and a threat to anyone, especially with the current status of travel.”
The Partnership named a number of other Service to America Medal winners. Learn their stories via the videos below.
Career Achievement Medal: Edwin Kneedler Deputy Solicitor General, Department of Justice
Science and Environment Medal: William A. Bauman, M.D., and Ann M. Spungen, Ph.D. Director and associate director, National Center of Excellence for the Medical Consequences of Spinal Cord Injury, Department of Veterans Affairs, James J. Peters VA Medical Center