MATTOON -- Julian Grass, a Mattoon native, helped respond to the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone earlier this year as part of his work with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Grass, a 2003 graduate of Mattoon High School, has served as a surveillance epidemiologist in the Enteric Diseases Epidemiology Branch at the CDC since 2011.
"I volunteered to go to Sierra Leone because I felt it was my duty as a public health professional to help fight the Ebola epidemic," Grass said via email. "I feel very fortunate to have played a small role in assisting my Sierra Leonean colleagues in the fight against Ebola."
Grass said he previously deployed to Kenya to assist with an outbreak investigation in 2014, but the one-month deployment in January was his first time to serve in Sierra Leone and to work on an Ebola outbreak. He said the prospect of dealing with this deadly disease was intimidating for him.
Prior to deploying, Grass and fellow responders were trained by the CDC in the use of personal protective equipment and other ways to protect themselves while in the field. Grass said he also took every opportunity to speak with returning staff to learn from their experiences in West Africa.
"While in the field, it’s important to frequently wash your hands, to not enter the home of a person suspected of having Ebola or who has been exposed to the disease, and to not touch any item that may have come in contact with a person who is sick with Ebola," Grass said.
Grass, who has a master's in public health from Tulane University, said he deployed to assist Sierra Leone's Ministry of Health and Sanitation. He was assigned to the Bo district, where he served as an epidemiologist and provided support in activities related to epidemiology and surveillance.
One of the Mattoon native's responsibilities in Sierra Leone was to help train local responders there to work as contact tracers.
The role of tracers is to find everyone who came in contact with a person sick with Ebola, Grass said. These individuals are then followed for 21 days since the last day they were in contact with the Ebola patient to monitor for signs of illness.
"Contact tracing is essential in breaking the chain of transmission of the disease," Grass said.
Grass said he found Sierra Leone to be a beautiful country and his local colleagues there to be heroic and hard working. Grass said he has the utmost respect for his Sierra Leonean colleagues. He added that they were appreciative of those helping their country battle the Ebola outbreak.
In addition to his overseas deployment, Grass said he was detailed to CDC’s Emergency Operations Center in Atlanta to assist with the Ebola response. He served as the Sierra Leone data manager on the epidemiology team.
There has not been a positive case of Ebola in Sierra Leone's Bo district in more than 50 days now, Grass said.
"The number of cases has also declined in other districts of Sierra Leone. However, we shouldn’t be complacent," Grass said. "I’m optimistic the response is heading in the right direction since we’ve learned that Ebola is controllable."