Newsroom > DHHS News Release


April 7, 2009

Marla Augustine, Communications and Legislative Services, (402) 471-4047 or


Disease Investigations are Public Health at Work

April is Public Health Month

Note: Sound bites on this topic are available at:

Lincoln—Two outbreaks of foodborne illness that have been in the news in recent months show how public health works, according to the state’s Chief Medical Officer. The recent outbreaks of salmonella linked to peanut butter and alfalfa sprouts were detected by state infectious disease specialists in Nebraska and other states. One Nebraskan became ill from eating peanut butter and 98 people in the state so far have become ill from eating alfalfa sprouts.

“Detecting outbreaks and determining their source can stop more illnesses from occurring,” said Dr. Joann Schaefer. “Halting outbreaks is an important role that the people in public health perform on a regular basis. In these cases, they connected the clues to solve the problems. As a result, both alfalfa sprouts and products containing certain brands of peanut butter were taken off the market because there was strong evidence of a connection between the illnesses and consumption of the products.”

Communicable disease staff in the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services are alerted to outbreaks by laboratories, physicians or persons who are ill. When that happens, Division of Public Health staff members wheel into gear.

Working with local health departments, staff members survey sick individuals to see if they have food items or events in common. They coordinate with laboratories and physicians to get stool cultures or food samples which can yield the all-important DNA fingerprint that can link cases nationwide.

Staff members work closely with local health departments to coordinate with physicians and patients to get information needed to solve the outbreak.

“Public health assures conditions in which people can be healthy,” Dr. Schaefer said. “A disease outbreak investigation is an example of public health at its best.”

All in all, public health agencies make sure that children get their immunizations, that sexually transmitted diseases are followed up on to see that treatment is received and contacts are notified, that children’s safety seats are properly anchored, that emergency medical services are available everywhere, that drinking water is safe to drink. The list goes on and on, Dr. Schaefer said. These are just some examples of the things public health does to save lives.

Local health departments play an important role, Dr. Schaefer said. They bring public health to their constituents, providing services, support and education.*

“I appreciate the local health departments because we rely on their collaboration with DHHS in order to reach all Nebraskans,” she said.

April has been declared Public Health Month in Nebraska.

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*Note: A map of local health departments and contact information can be found at