Top: Dr. Jean Clare Smith: “Having the privilege of working at the CDC and experiencing the best of both worlds at the CDC and WHO has been the highlight of my professional life.” Bottom: A child from the Rautahat District of Nepal receives the oral polio vaccine during a mass vaccination campaign along the India border.
Jean Clare Smith, MD ’80, MPH, completed a one-year fellowship in India between her second and third years at UCLA that left her with a deep interest in public health. She worked in maternal/child health in Cambodia before joining the Epidemic Intelligence Service (EIS) program — a two-year field-epidemiology training program for physicians based at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Upon completion of EIS, Dr. Smith was recruited by the CDC to take long-term assignments in India and Nepal with the World Health Organization (WHO). She also worked in Myanmar, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Maldives, North Korea, Sri Lanka and Thailand before she returned to the CDC, where she has served, since 2006, as a medical officer with the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices for the United States.
The transition from being a practicing internist to a fledgling EIS officer was not an easy one, but after visiting the CDC in 1991, I knew that I really wanted to learn more about public health and epidemiology and build a public-health career. When I was recruited by Stephen Cochi, MD, MPH, in CDC’s National Immunization Program to move to New Delhi, India, on assignment with the WHO, I was overwhelmed and thrilled by the tasks ahead. From 1995 to 1998, I developed a surveillance system to track acute flaccid paralysis (AFP), the key to developing targeted-immunization strategies aimed at eradicating the three wild poliovirus serotypes.
I traveled to several Southeast Asian countries and worked with ministries of health to get AFP surveillance running in their countries — a more intense and challenging task, in many ways, than internal-medicine residency. As the countries began making headway in strengthening their polio-eradication strategies, I was asked to shift to Nepal, which was not making much progress in its programs. In 1998, I moved to Kathmandu, recruited a team of Nepali surveillance medical officers (SMOs) and ancillary staff and began working closely with the Ministry of Health to strengthen polio-immunization and surveillance programs at national, regional, district and village levels.
Nepal saw its last indigenous case of polio in 2000, and for the next five years, I worked with the SMOs and ministers of health in Nepal and India to bolster other vaccine-preventable-disease programs, such as measles and neonatal tetanus. The team of Nepali SMOs still exists and has taken on more and more infectious-disease challenges over the years. To this day, I consider these years to be the most satisfying, challenging and rewarding work experiences since earning my UCLA MD degree in 1980. Having the privilege of working at the CDC and experiencing the best of both worlds at the CDC and WHO has been the highlight of my professional life.