Learning and Growing Skills for Disease Intervention Specialists, the Frontline Fighters of STD Epidemics

As part of NACCHO’s efforts to support Disease Intervention Specialists (DIS), which have included participation in the preparations for a national DIS certification program and development of new training courses for DIS and DIS supervisors, we provide scholarships for local health department (LHD) DIS to attend the National Coalition of STD Director’s (NCSD’s) annual STD Engage conference. The conference has a track for DIS, which aims to deepen their skills to combat rising rates of STDs nationwide. In 2018, we awarded three scholarships. This blog highlights their experiences and feedback following the meeting, which was held in Orlando, FL in November.

Andrea R. Lewis, a DIS with the Florida Department of Health in Duval County, said, “The conference allowed me to improve my communication skills for performing client interviews and I can’t wait to share the resources that I was able to bring home, like tools for linkage to care, with my colleagues!”

Cherrite Peterson, a DIS with the Mobile County Health Department in Alabama, stated that she would immediately be able to use the information from the conference session, “When Rubber Meets the Road,” to help her talk to her patients about the benefits of condom use—an essential piece of the puzzle for reducing STD rates in the U.S. Cherrite also said that she brought back CDC’s Syphilis Call to Action and plans to use it for doing outreach to local private providers about the need to test and treat syphilis, which is critical given rising rates in their community.

Gonzalo Riccombeni, a DIS with the Santa Clara County Public Health Department in California, shared the following after attending STD Engage 2018: “The role of a DIS is in a constant state of evolution and one of the most important qualities that a DIS must have is the ability to adapt to these changes. This ability to adapt is tested by individual clients and their needs, the demographic shifts in morbidity, and the funding given to their respective health jurisdictions. What I have seen in the last year at my local health jurisdiction is an alarming rise in congenital syphilis. Due to high female morbidity and a staff shortage, we have had to make certain changes in our priorities and the clients we’ve been having to interview. My fascinating experience at the STD Engage conference allowed me to meet and listen to other DIS from different health jurisdictions on how they are handling the same rise in congenital syphilis rates. Dr. Gail Bolan, in her amazing presentation, mentioned that the CDC will be prioritizing females of child-bearing age that test positive for syphilis and it really stuck with me because at my program we decided to take this action months before.

The common denominators in this rise in female syphilis cases seem to be homelessness, meth use, and mental health illness. Talking with other DIS from Oregon and Washington, I discovered that they were seeing that same alarming rise with the same common factors and while it is troubling, it at least gives us three variables that we can work on improving to curb this increase. The DIS out of the Portland [Oregon] area have worked to build relationships with the homeless community and create partners with those that live in the encampments, a relationship that can take weeks to years to develop. Former President of Planned Parenthood, Cecile Richards, explained the important role that low-cost clinics have in the community and the utter health disaster that this war on Planned Parenthood has and will keep having on women and low-income individuals if allowed to continue. I work out of a county health department and I think we need to build stronger relationships with our community clinics, urgent care, and emergency departments as most of our female cases come from these providers. Ashley Hoover from the Louisiana Office of Public Health gave a presentation on how that state developed a case management system for women with syphilis in which they are assigned case managers to connect them to medical care, offer services to support treatment adherence guidelines, and reach out at least once a month until delivery to make sure that the client continues prenatal care and reduces their risk for reinfection. I believe taking those steps and providing those resources are integral in reducing congenital syphilis, and health departments would do well in developing their own model for female syphilis cases.

I believe that the STD Engage conference is something that all DIS should attend at some point in their careers. It’s an STD prevention Mecca, if you will. The incredible presenters were thought-provoking and motivating, in the attendees are some amazing and truly heroic people, and I can’t wait to attend another one at some point.”

We hope that you will join the next STD Engage meeting (November 19-22, 2019 in Alexandra, Virginia). As previous attendees noted above, other DIS, especially new DIS, should not miss the opportunity to be a part of this great event, which provides a wealth of information that will aid in their DIS work. And for those DIS that have years of experience, attending STD Engage will sharpen and fine-tune areas for continued growth.

Keep your eyes open for conference scholarship announcements from NACCHO and the National Coalition of STD Directors (NSCD). NACCHO recognizes that this work is so important and will continue to support it!

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