Rebecca Katz: Creating public health infrastructure to handle pandemics — before they occur

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Rebecca Katz, PhD, MPH, is watching with more than keen interest the way the U.S. is positioning itself to handle a potential Zika outbreak this summer.

For more than a decade, Katz and a team of researchers have worked to help design systems and implement policies to facilitate a coordinated response to potential microbial outbreaks and pandemics in 22 countries — many low resourced and developing.

The irony of a test case at home is not lost on the social scientist.

International diplomacy

In their work, as Katz explains, “We ask and answer questions like, ‘What kind of systems do you need in place to have countries working together. How do you think about the types of capacity that is going to be required at the municipality level? What does this mean for travel and trade? Are there international agreements that should be in place to facilitate mitigation and response, and how do countries implement the ones that are already in place?’”

These are the challenges that can lead to advances, or breaks, in broader international diplomacy.

“Ours is policy work. We analyze policies and practices used throughout the world to prevent, detect and respond to emerging health threats before they become international crises,” Katz says.

“The better a country’s public health systems are, the sooner it can recognize that something abnormal is happening, the faster they can do something about it — and the more lives they are able to save,” she says.  

A potential outbreak at home

Katz suspects there are a lot of people in the federal government who haven’t slept well in a long time.

“There is a lot going on at the federal level to address Zika, and state governors met in the early spring about the problem — but a successful effort will happen at the local level at a time when those health departments are under funded, under resourced, and struggling,” Katz explains.

It’s not dissimilar from the kind of issues that she and the rest of the research team think about when examining how best to respond to global public health threats. 

With the World Health Organization’s International Health Regulations as a guiding framework and with federal funding, Katz and her colleagues have completed aspects of this work in Guinea, Kenya, Rwanda, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Libya, Algeria, Oman, Turkey, Cambodia, Lao, Malaysia, Thailand, Timor-Leste and Vietnam.

Proposed Global Health Center 

Katz and research partner Julie Fischer, PhD, brought their research team and large portfolio of projects to Georgetown University Medical Center June 1 from the Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University.

Katz says she was attracted to Georgetown because of the opportunity to “take a multidisciplinary approach and to engage faculty and students across the Medical Center as well as with the Law Center, the School of Foreign Service and other parts of the University.”

Soon, Katz and Fischer will formally propose the Center for Global Health Science and Security at Georgetown University Medical Center, which will provide the platform to connect with other global health efforts already happening across Georgetown.

Katz also works on issues related to foodborne illness surveillance and response, and biosecurity and biosafety. Since 2004, she has consulted for the State Department working on issues related to the Biological Weapons Convention and emerging and pandemic threats.

Multidisciplinary work

Katz’s interest in international diplomacy has deep routes. Her undergraduate work at Swarthmore College was in political science and economics.  She received a Master of Public Health in international health from Yale University and a Master of Arts in public affairs from Princeton University, before earning her PhD, also at Princeton.

Katz is a tenured associate professor in the School of Nursing & Health Studies’ (NHS) Department of International Health chaired by Bernhard Liese, MD, DSc, MPH.

Other members of the Center research team will be situated elsewhere across GUMC, underscoring the multidisciplinary nature of their work.

Fischer, a microbiologist , and Erin Sorrell, PhD, Msc, a virologist,  joined the department of microbiology and immunology. Claire Standley, PhD, MSc, a disease ecologist, joins Katz in the department of international health at NHS.  Research assistant Andrea Vaught and research associate Nina Kanakarajavelu. MA, MPH, also join the new Center at Georgetown.

In addition to conducting research and forming collaborations with Georgetown investigators, Katz will initially teach two classes: an undergraduate course on global health diplomacy in the School of Foreign Service, and a course on emerging infectious diseases for master’s students in microbiology and international health.

Katz and her team join a cadre of faculty at the Medical Center who focus on global health issues including several scholars at the School of Nursing & Health Studies including Irene Jillson, PhD, associate professor, whose work centers on global health ethics, and Liese, who directs the university-wide Master of Science in Global Health program. 

No end in sight

Katz’s work has no end in sight.  Potential pandemics abound. “It is our job to do what we can to raise the political attention as well as continue to do good empirical research to support decision making.”   


Renee Twombly
GUMC Communications