Former Topeka resident working as 'disease detective'

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TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Topeka native Malini DeSilva has traveled around the United States — and the world — as a disease detective.

DeSilva, 34, works as an Epidemic Intelligence Service officer with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, The Topeka Capital-Journal ( ) reported.

She is on the front lines of emerging health threats and is currently serving as part of the CDC's Ebola response team in Sierra Leone.

DeSilva was born in Topeka to Mahasen and Eileen DeSilva. She attended Most Pure Heart of Mary Catholic School, and graduated from Hayden High School in 1999. Her father works as a psychiatrist at Colmery-O'Neil VA Medical Center.

After graduation from high school, DeSilva attended Boston College and majored in biology. She then worked as an employment case manager for homeless people on Skid Row in Los Angeles.

"It was a great year," DeSilva said of her LA experience just before leaving for Sierra Leone. "It was tough. The personal stories were heartbreaking. It was a very powerful year for me."

She then attended Mayo Medical School in Rochester, Minnesota, where she studied to become a physician. Between her third and four years of medical school, DeSilva took a break and earned her master's degree in public health. She returned to medical school in 2009 and went through a four-year program of internal medicine and pediatrics at the University of Minnesota.

In July 2013, DeSilva joined CDC's EIS program, which is a two-year post graduate program. The CDC stationed DeSilva in Portland, Oregon. Her first day on the job, she had to deal with a cryptosporidiosis outbreak in Baker City, Oregon. Cryptosporidiosis is a parasite that is chlorine resistant. It is found in water systems.

One-third of the city was affected, she said.

"The outbreak had started the week before I started," DeSilva said. "It was a fast start. It's rare that we see these water systems have crypto outbreaks."

In April, DeSilva shared her latest research, which focused on an outbreak of syphilis in Portland and its connection to online dating apps. She presented her findings at the 64th annual EIS conference at the end of April.

Early-stage syphilis in Multnomah County, Oregon, increased from 1.9 cases per 100,000 people in 2007 to 31.3 cases per 100,000 people in 2013. Most cases occurred among men who have sex with men.

There were 57 case participants — Multnomah County male residents, aged 18 or older, who have sex with men and have tested positive for syphilis — and 119 control participants, according to a document provided by the CDC. Seventy percent of case participants and 42 percent of control participants reported meeting partners online. Case participants reported more partners than control participants.

DeSilva's conclusion was that early syphilis was associated with meeting partners online.

Fewer people are going to bars and clubs to meet partners, DeSilva said. Online resources are allowing people to have multiple sex partners.

"It was an incredible learning experience," she said. "It was more work than I anticipated but an incredible learning experience."

In October 2014, DeSilva traveled with the CDC to Sierra Leone as part of Ebola protection and intervention teams. She worked with hospitals in medical clinics in outlying areas.

This was during a time when Ebola was in the national media spotlight.

"I think it was scarier for my family" than me, DeSilva said. "There were a lot of worried people."

Many of the CDC workers working on outlying areas would return to Sierra Leone's capital, Freetown, on weekends to replenish supplies and often take a hot shower.

"She was so bright, open and bubbly," said Jennifer McQuiston, a CDC science adviser for public affairs. "Everyone else tended to be dragging. She looked like she had just stepped off the plane from Atlanta. She's pretty amazing."

EIS officers have to be disease detectives, McQuiston said. They have to think outside of the box and try to solve a mystery before it becomes a problem or outbreak.

"She's had a lot of different experiences," McQuiston said. "I find her to be super smart. She is very energetic and dedicated."

Several days ago, DeSilva departed for Sierra Leone again as part of the Ebola efforts there. This time, she will be doing assessments at places where the CDC hasn't established itself.

At the end of June, DeSilva will return to Portland and her two-year program with the CDC will come to an end.

"It's been an eye-opening experience," she said.

As for the future? DeSilva will become an outpatient primary care physician at Health Partners, a Minnesota-based not-for-profit health maintenance organization. She wants to combine public health and clinical medicine to help reform health policies.

"There are changes that people aren't even aware of," DeSilva said. "Small things can make big change."


Information from: The Topeka (Kan.) Capital-Journal,

This is an AP Member Exchange shared by The Topeka Capital-Journal

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