In the spring of 2013, Colorado School of Public Health (CSPH) students had the opportunity to attend an intensive outbreak response training in Fort Collins hosted by the Colorado School of Public Health, the Center for Food Safety and the Prevention of Foodborne Disease, and the Colorado Integrated Food Safety Center of Excellence (CoE). This fall, six Master of Public Health (MPH) students had the opportunity to participate in an outbreak investigation led by epidemiologists and other public health officials at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) to put these skills into practice.

“As soon as I learned that a case-control study was needed for this outbreak, I knew this would be a great opportunity to call on the students I met at the training last spring,” CoE epidemiologist Rachel Jervis said. “This type of case-control study is a huge undertaking and the students were able to enroll and interview all the controls for the study. CDPHE got much-appreciated assistance and the students got experience participating in a foodborne illness outbreak.”

Colorado State University (CSU) MPH students Melissa Taylor, Anj Stadnik, Julie Lenoch, and Anna Helms joined the CDPHE team to conduct a case-control study. The student investigators were tasked with conducting sequential-digit dialing surveying of Denver metropolitan area residents to establish controls for the study. The outbreak, which has since been publicized by the media, involved cases of E. coli from the consumption of infected produce at a Denver metro area chain restaurant. There is no ongoing public health risk, though CDPHE and the Food and Drug Administration continue to investigate.

Melissa Taylor, in the epidemiology concentration, knew immediately that she wanted to be involved in the opportunity to investigate an outbreak of E. coli. “I was excited to be able to apply the things I learned in class in a professional setting,” said Melissa.

The training in April not only included an introduction to foodborne disease outbreak investigations, but it also involved an intensive training of effective interview techniques. The trained investigators are now deemed “Rapid Responders” and may be invited to assist with other outbreak investigations coordinated by the CDPHE and possibly other local public health agencies. The CSPH plans to offer this training to public health students again in the future.

This experience has allowed the CSPH students involved in the opportunity to assist in a real outbreak investigation, gaining practical public health field-experience.

Another student involved in the outbreak, Anna Helms, also gained valuable experience administering an outbreak questionnaire to Denver area residents. “The investigation allowed me, as a student pursuing a career in health communications, to gain a better understanding of the importance of survey design, administration, and evaluation concerning food-borne disease.”