Growing up on the South Hill, Jessica Reichard wasn’t sure what she wanted to do.
After graduating from the University of Puget Sound in 2010, she signed up for AmeriCorps, then continued volunteering. She ended up in Guatemala, where she worked on a nutrition program for mothers and children in rural Mayan areas. Reichard used the year to perfect her Spanish and decided to stick with public health work.
Now, the Lewis and Clark High School graduate is part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention team trying to stop the spread of Zika virus in the Americas. As a public health analyst, she works in Puerto Rico with officials from the Department of Health, helping coordinate education and prevention efforts.
Zika virus causes mild, feverlike illness in about one-fifth of the people it infects, making it less serious for the average person than other mosquito-borne illnesses, like dengue fever. But it can cause microcephaly and other serious birth defects, making it a serious concern for pregnant women and their children.
Zika infection is also associated with Guillain-Barré syndrome, a poorly understood condition where the body attacks its own nervous system, occasionally resulting in death.
“We were having trouble gaining traction because Zika is such a mild illness when it manifests,” Reichard said of early education efforts. She spent about six months coordinating the response, including one month in Puerto Rico. She returned about a week ago for a short stint at home before heading back this week.
Though she’s worked at the CDC in Atlanta for four years, Reichard said, “I’m a Washingtonian through and through.” She attributed some of her interest in health and science to her parents: Her mother is a nurse, and her father works in health care management.
High rates of infection in Puerto Rico led public health officials to declare an epidemic there in July. Congress squabbled over funding efforts and health agencies tasked with fighting Zika raided money from Ebola, influenza and other programs to pay for the response.
In late September, Congress passed a bill allocating $1.1 billlion for Zika funding, with about $66 million dedicated to helping people infected with the virus in U.S. territories and another $394 million for mosquito control.
The prevention efforts Reichard coordinates include education campaigns and distribution of prevention kits, which include mosquito repellant and condoms.
She also works with health schools to find phlebotomists who are willing to donate their time to take blood samples from people suspected of having Zika virus.
“The CDC is lending as much help as it can on the ground but the help of Puerto Rican … medically trained specialists is incredibly important,” she said.
Data from the Puerto Rico Department of Health shows confirmed Zika cases peaking in mid-August and declining since. A total of 31,454 Zika cases have been confirmed on the island so far this year as of Oct. 27, though thousands more are suspected.
As of early October, there were 19 confirmed and 24 suspected Zika patients who also had Guillain-Barré syndrome. Two died.
Public health officials in Puerto Rico are encouraging women who are pregnant to use condoms during sex to prevent infection by partners, and to avoid mosquito bites through use of nets, repellant and removing standing water where mosquitoes can breed.
“People are starting to change their behaviors, which is hopefully sustainable,” Reichard said.
This article was updated on Nov. 4 to correct the amount of time Reichard spent in Puerto Rico and the timing of her work in Guatemala.