Public health student goes behind the scenes at the China CDC

MPH student Ben Anderson visited the great wall with Liqun Fang, a team leader in the epidemiology section at the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Photos courtesy of Ben Anderson.

In China, the world’s most populous country and a major hub for international travel and trade, the next infectious disease outbreak could always be just around the corner.

Ben Anderson, a UF Master of Public Health student, recently completed an internship that allowed him to take an inside look at the surveillance arm of the Chinese National Influenza Center, part of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Anderson is believed to be the first American student to do an internship with the Chinese National Influenza Center and is one of few long-term visitors.

Located in Beijing, the Chinese National Influenza Center, or CNIC, is a World Health Organization Collaborating Center for Reference and Research. The CNIC coordinates surveillance with more than 500 sentinel hospitals and more than 400 network laboratories in 31 provinces. Nearly half of the world’s influenza virus vaccine strains came from the CNIC.

During his five-week internship, Anderson worked closely with the epidemiology and management sections of the CNIC to write an operational description of the surveillance network and conduct an evaluation in order to identify possible areas for improvement. Given the large scale of the center’s operation, Anderson was impressed by its efficiency.

“It has to be a really well-orchestrated and well-organized system of distribution, receiving and processing in order to keep track of all the samples and data and make sure that everything is processed in a timely manner,” Anderson said. “Every week they’re generating reports from the information and data they’re capturing from the surveillance system. I was really impressed by how they were able to do that so effectively, based on just the size of the system. That was pretty surprising for me.”

At the close of his internship Anderson presented his findings to members of the CNIC, including the center director, Yuelong Shu, Ph.D. Anderson made several recommendations that were well-received, including incorporating more epidemiological testing of influenza antibodies present in populations and expanding the surveillance network to more rural areas. Anderson also suggested that the center’s past three years of complete surveillance data be used to begin calculating baseline percentages for influenza-like illness cases in regions, provinces, counties and even individual sentinel sites, a recommendation that Shu plans to pursue in the coming year.

The CNIC staff members were generous hosts both in the work setting and with their personal time, Anderson said.

“Every weekend there was a different person from the lab who wanted to take me out sightseeing,” Anderson said. “I got a chance not only to see the sights, but to spend more time with some of the members of the unit and get to know them a little bit better. I think my highlight was when I was invited to the home of the person who runs the epidemiology and management group and I got to make dumplings with her and her family.”

The internship gave Anderson a unique opportunity to serve as an ambassador for UF and the United States, said Gregory Gray, M.D., M.P.H., chair of the PHHP department of environmental and global health, and Anderson’s mentor.

“Ben is an exceptional graduate student, one of our finest,” Gray said. “Our Chinese collaborators really appreciated Ben’s analysis of their influenza surveillance systems with Dr. Shu thanking him for his helpful analysis and suggestions during their outbriefing. In part because of Ben’s diplomatic and scientific work, three UF faculty members will visit the Chinese CDC and CNIC in June to pursue new research collaborations and future trainee exchanges.”

Following his graduation from the master’s in public health program in May, Anderson will start doctoral work in the college’s new Ph.D. in public health program in One Health and he believes more research in China may be in his future.

“I definitely think this experience will influence my Ph.D. work as far as what dissertation topic I choose,” Anderson said. “I think there is potential for future trips to China, not necessarily as a student, but actually working as a collaborator with the CNIC may be a possibility now that this internship has happened.”