Welcome to the Coolest PHL in America by Nancy Maddox , MPH , writer
The first time Bernd Jilly , PhD , set foot in Alaska was in the blustery month of January . “ I remember it like it was yesterday ,” he said . “ We had landed at the Anchorage airport and a blizzard had just started . It was in the days before they had jetways , and as they opened the door , all this snow came flying in . I stepped out on the ramp and thought , God I love this place . I just fell in love with the state . It was love at first sight .”
Today , Jilly directs the state ’ s only public health laboratory ( PHL ), comprising the Alaska State Public Health Lab in Anchorage and the Alaska State Virology Lab at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks ( UAF ), some 360 miles away . His staff support public health monitoring and response activities for Alaska ’ s 750,000 residents and for the Alaska Native Tribes .
Alaska is both the biggest US state in terms of area — more than twice the size of Texas — and among the least populous . In fact , much of the state is uninhabited wilderness , including large tracts of tundra , mountains and glaciers . The most important industry here is oil and natural gas extraction , which provides more than 80 % of state revenues . The second most lucrative industry is fishing along the state ’ s 34,000-mile tidal coastline and in thousands of rivers and streams . Finally , Alaska ’ s majestic scenery
The Alaska Public Health Laboratory and abundant wildlife bring in about $ 2 billion of tourist dollars annually .
Needless to say , there is much humananimal interaction here ( including subsistence hunting ), necessitating laboratory confirmation of animal health threats , including common zoonoses , such as brucellosis in caribou and marine mammals and tularemia in rabbits . The state ranks # 1 nationally in foodborne botulism — usually relatively mild cases of Clostridium botulinum type E , associated with fermented native dishes featuring fish and animal parts . After the partial meltdown of Japan ’ s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in 2011 , there was intense concern about possible radioactive contamination of Alaska fisheries . “ Thank god , it never materialized ,” said Jilly . “ Our fish were well below background levels .”
Yet despite its rural character , America ’ s “ Frontier State ” has not been immune to the public health problems prevalent in more populous jurisdictions . For example , Alaska consistently ranks among the top five states in TB burden , concentrated in Native Alaskan and immigrant Asian communities ( although the state has seen little drug-resistant TB ). Recently , there was a significant problem with group A beta-hemolytic streptococcus and Staphylococcus aureus infection in the homeless community . At the moment , Jilly is working to identify funds for a general survey of the type and quality of opioids in use here . The idea is to test residual material extracted from syringes collected by the state ’ s needle exchange program . He is also hoping that a method can be developed to simultaneously test for HIV and hepatitis C in opioid users .
The main 34,000-square-foot Anchorage facility sits on six acres of protected wetlands , within sight of the Chugach Mountain Range , whose highest peak tops 13,000 feet . About a third of the single-story , 17-year-old building is reserved for the state medical examiner , and an enclosed mechanical penthouse is sited on the roof . “ Everything has to be indoors ,” said Jilly . “ No pipes outside .” The laboratory is rated BSL-3 +.
The 27,000-square-foot virology laboratory is shared with the animal research program at the UAF . It takes up two floors and a basement and boasts an ABSL-3 space , dedicated to animal research by UAF faculty .
Born in a small town outside Stuttgart , Germany , Jilly immigrated to the United States with his family in the early 1960s , and grew up in Chicago . “ I was always interested in science ,” he said . “ And when I got to college , I thought , You can ’ t make money being a biology major , so I discovered the med tech program .” After graduating from the University of Illinois at Chicago , he worked as a clinical laboratory scientist for a few years before returning to his alma mater to earn a MS in laboratory medicine and a PhD in pathology . Upon graduating , Jilly said , “ I was lucky enough to land an assistant professorship in the clinical lab sciences program at the University of Illinois .” He served seven years in that position , before moving to Berkeley , CA , to lead CDC ’ s National Laboratory Training Network in the Pacific Region . “ And that ’ s how I got introduced to Alaska ,” he said . “ I thought if there were ever an opportunity to move
LAB MATTERS Summer 2017
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