World turns to University professor amid Ebola outbreak

Michael Osterholm is an expert in infectious disease epidemiology.

by Kaylee Kruschke

When other children were nursing cuts, bruises and colds, a young Michael Osterholm decided he wanted to study infections and illnesses.

“Even in high school, I knew this is what I wanted to do,” Osterholm said.

He spent afternoons studying microbes at a nearby hometown college. Fast-forward to the present, and Osterholm is a globally known expert in infectious disease epidemiology.

Now, the University of Minnesota School of Public Health and Medical School professor and director of the University’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, is using his expertise by keeping a close watch on the ongoing Ebola outbreak in West Africa.

The outbreak has totaled more than 1,500 deaths and could infect up to 20,000 people, according to the World Health Organization.

Growing urban populations, transportation options and distrust in medical care have contributed to Ebola’s growing death count — which Osterholm called underreported, but he said it “exceeds all of the other outbreaks combined over the past 40 years.”

In other outbreaks, medical personnel isolated those who were infected and closely watched those exposed through contact of bodily fluid, he said.

But resources in West Africa, including medical personnel, are now running out, Osterholm wrote in a Washington Post article published last month, “What we need to fight Ebola.”

In the piece, Osterholm said the work of volunteers, public health agencies and local health care providers and educators is not enough to combat the disease.

Osterholm serves as an occasional adviser to the World Health Organization, the National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and Department of Defense.

In 2005, amid fears of the avian flu virus, Osterholm was an international leader of preparedness for an influenza pandemic.

Osterholm earned advanced degrees in environmental health and public health in epidemiology from the University and Luther College. He then went on to hold various positions at the University for almost 40 years.

‘Aggressively passionate’

When Osterholm first started working at the Minnesota Department of Health in 1975, he said there were only four people there studying infectious disease.

But over his 24 years at MDH, Osterholm built up a team of more than 70 individuals.

“When we were at the health department together, Mike always wanted to make sure that we got the answer right and that we got it fast,” said Craig Hedberg, a former colleague and professor at the School of Public Health.

Hedberg, whom Osterholm advised during his time at the University, said Osterholm could simultaneously be an aggressively passionate researcher while being a deeply caringmentor.

“As things happen, he gets involved in them … he does everything he can to keep his students engaged in his work,” said Nicholas Kelley, a research associate at the University’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy and former mentee of Osterholm’s. “[He makes] sure he’s there supporting them and pushing them to become better professionals before they graduate.”

As the author of more than 300 papers and abstracts, Osterholm has led numerous investigations of international outbreaks of food-borne diseases, HIV and the transmission of Hepatitis B in health care settings.

In the late 1980s, Osterholm made a splash when he tried twice, but failed, to swim across the English Channel. Since then, he has spent his free time back home in northeast Iowa, where he restores cold-water streams using old photographs.