The Germinator: Hawaii State Epidemiologist Sarah Park

Sarah Park, infectious disease physician, state epidemiologist and chief of the Hawaii Department of Health’s Disease Outbreak Control Division, investigates everything from measles outbreaks to the flu and leptospirosis. She isn’t scared of a little dengue, but she also doesn’t buy the 5-second rule.

photo: Odeelo Dayondon

THERE'S SO MUCH POTENTIAL for infectious diseases here. Not just the potential to get them, but to learn about them. We definitely get a lot of the same stuff they get on the Mainland but we also see leptospirosis; we see typhus; we occasionally see dengue when someone brings it to us (thank you very much) and then we have rat lungworm. It’s an interesting potpourri.

I'M A GEEK. I. Am. A. Geek. I really get off on this stuff. You should hear my dinner conversations with my colleagues: not exactly appetizing. In medical school, I loved all the disciplines, but I’m a thinker and a problem solver and that’s what an infectious disease physician does. We solve problems.

I WOULDN'T SAY I’m a germaphobe, but I’m also careful. I don’t eat things that fall on the ground. I wash my hands a lot. I’m very aware of certain things in food establishments.

IT'S NOT so much that I’m scared of a particular disease—it’s more like I have a healthy respect for disease.

THERE ARE VERY FEW THINGS that you can actually protect your kids from. Measles is one of them. I find it so frustrating that we’re even still dealing with measles cases. It’s one of the few diseases that we can actually eradicate because it’s only carried by humans. We want to get to a point where everyone is vaccinated.

MY COLLEAGUE AND I were sitting in the bowels of a SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) hospital in Taiwan doing medical record extractions, wearing protective masks and breathing our own CO2 for three hours because there was SARS all around us. And every time we saw a mosquito, we thought: We’ll probably die of dengue.

THE DENGUE CLUSTER we had in 2012 made me nervous. We didn’t know where it was coming from initially. It took a ton of work to find the five cases, one of which was the index case, but the worrisome thing was that we have mosquitoes that can perpetuate it. But thankfully we were able to control it.

DISEASES WILL ALWAYS HAPPEN, and they’ll never get reported until [they’re] already past, but, knock on wood, I don’t think I’ve encountered a disease yet where I’ve been seriously worried. The flu pandemic in 2009 came close, only because I was new to being the chief, new to the Islands and I was like, and we have a pandemic? It was just a lot.

I LOVE the public health aspects of the job, the science aspects—when we get to do the investigations and try to understand why something happened.

I THINK I WORRY MORE than the average person, but only because I know what’s out there.

What will the state epidemiologist eat? Escargot: no. Peruvian guinea pig: yes.