Friday Faculty Focus: UNMC’s Dr. Ali Khan

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August 26th, 2016

Dr. Ali Khan has worked all around the world fighting infectious disease. (Photo by Brandon McDermott)

Dr. Ali Khan has worked all around the world fighting infectious disease. (Photo by Brandon McDermott)

Dr. Ali Khan is the Dean of the Nebraska Medical Center’s College of Public Health. He spent more than two decades working for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. During his time at the CDC, Dr. Khan traveled to Zaire (Ebola ’95), Washington D.C. (Anthrax ’01) and Singapore (SARS ’02) to help aid in the spread of infectious diseases. KVNO’s student reporter Brandon McDermott sat down with him recently and filed this week’s Friday Faculty Focus.


Brandon: First of all Dr. Khan I want to say thank you for joining us on the show.

Dr. Khan: Thank you for the opportunity.

Brandon: Now, you were on the ground in Zaire in 1995 when Ebola hit – working alongside workers from the Red Cross – did this real life epidemic put into focus why you do what you do?

Dr. Khan: That real life epidemic really did define the rest of my career to be honest with you. Very quickly it became clear to me – the great amount of uncertainty that surrounds these outbreaks. What’s going on who’s getting infected, who’s transmitting disease to whom, who’s dying. There’s so much uncertainty around these outbreaks – a large number of partners and what you are required to do. Not just in Ebola, but these multiple emerging infectious disease outbreaks we keep hearing about every year or so. To quickly try to understand what is going on in the community and then use that information to decide what do you need to do to prevent disease.

Brandon: You had a long career at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. How did that help prepare you for the journey you had from Ebola in Zaire to anthrax in D.C. in 2001 to SARS in Singapore in 2002?

Dr. Khan: My plan had always been to do infectious diseases back on the East Coast where I had grown up and then I went to C.D.C. for a two year disease detective training program. I got bit by the public health bug. I fell in love with public health, the people in public health and the mission of public health to make our communities healthier. So, my two year stint at C.D.C. turned into a twenty three year stint.

Brandon: Dr. Kahn, what was it like being thrown into the fire like you were – making decisions that could affect millions of people?

Dr. Khan: When I started my career in public health – I never thought I would be in one – let alone two civil wars. But when you’re passionate about public health, you go where you need to go to get the job done. Because what we have learned over time is that a disease anywhere – is a disease everywhere. And who would have thought that a disease such as Ebola in West Africa all of a sudden would lead to the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Nebraska Medicine taking care of patients with Ebola, right here in our own community.

Brandon: You authored a book titled ‘The Next Pandemic’. Can you talk a little bit about what went into writing the book?

Dr. Khan: So the book ‘The Next Pandemic’ is an opportunity to let everybody know what it takes to respond to an outbreak. We hear all the time ‘C.D.C. has been deployed to go to this outbreak’ or “W.H.O. has been has been deploying or sending teams to go do this outbreak.’ What I lay out in the book – through a number of vignettes and outbreaks that I’ve responded to is sort of what happens on the ground? What does an epidemiologist do? What does it mean to find a patient zero? What does it mean to talk to a community and help them stop Ebola outbreak? So, that’s what I do during the course of the book.

Brandon: Talk about the Zika virus. It’s been around for more than 60 years, first thought to be a mild virus only causing fever and joint pain – minor issues. But now there are reports of microcephaly and other birth defects. How does this change the game?

Dr. Khan: The identification of microcephaly and other severe complications – completely changes the game. So we have had similar – what was thought to be ‘mild’ viral diseases occurring throughout the Americas that people honestly just didn’t pay attention to. But, the fact that people didn’t pay attention to these supposedly ‘mild’ diseases meant that they didn’t put in place the public health measures, which would have protected them from Zika, because it uses the exact same mosquito.

So, the initial thinking about Zika was ‘oh, another mild infectious disease. You know 80-90 percent of people don’t get sick at all. The ones who get sick, maybe they get a fever rash a headache some red eyes.’ Then, all of a sudden, (it’s a) game changer, from two perspectives. One, is we realize that this actually can cause a severe disease with inflammation of the brain and a paralyzing, neural muscle illness. Then, the biggest thing was that, this virus seems to be like a ‘laser guided missile’ for brain cells. If you’re a pregnant woman, it gets right into the brain of a baby and it causes not just microcephaly which means a small brain. But, it causes a whole host of birth defect and bad outcomes for the baby.

There’s even now a suspicion that babies who may come out looking normal but were infected may have some long term side effects, in learning, behavioral and developmental problems from Zika. So, the biggest message from this is – we need to be careful about what we’re paying attention to and make sure we keep our public health system strong. Because, if there’s a lapse or a weakness, a new virus or a new pathogen will find a way to get through and hinder our health.

Brandon: Thanks Dr. Khan for joining us.

Dr. Khan: Thank you, Brandon for the opportunity – looking forward to chatting with you again.

Dr. Khan will recount some of his extraordinary lifetime adventures with the world’s deadliest diseases when he reads from his new book, “The Next Pandemic: On the Front Lines Against Humankind’s Gravest Dangers,” on Aug. 31 at 6 p.m. at the Bookworm on 90th & Center in Omaha.

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