Michigan woman playing a critical role in fighting Ebola in West Africa

ATLANTA - Aimee Summers' job usually requires an explanation.

Many people have no idea what "epidemiologist" means. Once it's explained, they almost always express concern.

Summers, 35, gets it. She doesn't share it.

At the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, she's deployed to Ukraine and refugee camps in Kenya and Senegal.

Three years ago, she worked in Liberia as CDC's on-site Dead Body Management Lead during an Ebola epidemic that killed more than 11,000 people in West Africa.

Summers oversaw the development and execution of protocols for handling and testing thousands of bodies and was in the thick of stemming the devastating outbreak.

The job has been a rewarding opportunity, not a danger, said Summers, who graduated from Portland High School in 2000.

That's why she pursued her career in the first place.

Affecting change

"All I wanted to do is affect as many people as possible," Summers said.

Studying biomedical engineering at the University of Michigan, Summers thought she'd do that as a doctor.

Then, in her senior year, she took a course on the epidemiology of HIV. She wanted a “global perspective” on health around the world and how it affected people in the U.S.

“I just found it really fascinating to learn about how diseases spread and how it affected all different populations, both domestically and internationally," Summers said.

So she changed course, setting her sights on a Ph.D. in international health and global epidemiology.

A more-than-two-year stint in the Peace Corps followed. She pursued her master's degree while serving as a health extension worker in Central Asia's Turkmenistan. She worked in the HIV/AIDS Prevention Center there and taught residents about hygiene, nutrition and infectious diseases.

She also learned as much of the language as she could, organized a youth baseball team with a roster full of locals, dealt with limited electricity and perfected hand washing her own clothes.

“It really opened my eyes to the importance of working with the community and learning what the community wants and what’s important to them," Summers said.

That knowledge was crucial in August 2014 when she was deployed to Liberia in the midst of the country's Ebola outbreak.

“It was pretty early on in the epidemic,” Summers said. “People were very frightened. It was the first time that Ebola had come to Liberia, that we know of, and it was just a disease that people were unfamiliar with. Fear is very powerful. People just didn’t know what to do.”

Summers witnessed the impact of the epidemic first hand. She said some people lost their entire family to the disease and communities struggled to contain the outbreak.

Communication limitations made the work challenging. In some areas of the country, there was no internet access or cell phone service.

"There are people who live in small villages," Summers said. "To get to them, you sometimes need to walk or take canoes. It can be difficult to navigate. If it’s rainy season the roads get washed out. Even driving places is difficult.”

Then there were cultural hurdles. Summers said CDC workers had to convince locals to change their burial practice of hand-washing each body before community funerals.

“If you’re washing a person who’s died of Ebola, the virus is present on the dead body,” she said. “People were touching them and spreading the virus. Without their understanding of that it would have been much more difficult to contain the outbreak.”

Building global capacity

Summers never feared for her own safety in West Africa, but, during a visit to an orphanage where physical contact had to be severely limited, her heart ached for children being impacted by the outbreak.

“Some of these kids were just really wanting human interaction, and, because of the disease spread, you can’t give it to them,” she said. “It was really damaging to see."

In August 2015, when she re-deployed to Liberia, the country was in much better shape.

“People were able to have large gatherings again,” she said. “There were very few cases. It was great to see the country getting back to normal."

Today, Summers works at the Center for Global Health at the CDC in Atlanta, Georgia, but she visits family in Michigan when she can.

Her mother, Karen Kvorka of Delta Township, said Summers still deploys abroad but she doesn't worry when those trips happen.

"Aimee is very passionate about her work, and that makes me really happy," she said. "As a bonus, Aimee has developed friendships all over the world, and I get to hear about her travels."

Lee Summers, who still lives in Portland, said he's proud of his daughter's contributions.

"Aimee has always been very independent in her life and job choices," he said. "There are many new and old diseases in our small world, and CDC is our best hope of preventing an outbreak."

Summers agreed.

"I love my work. We live in a world that’s interconnected, and it’s important to build capacity globally.”

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© 2017 Lansing State Journal


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