In the midst of Ebola, UW alumna learns to trust science

Signs in rural Liberia encourage villagers to stay safe during the Ebola epidemic. (Photo by Hannah Kirking.)

To many of us, flying into Liberia at the height of the Ebola epidemic would spell only danger.

For Dr. Hannah Kirking, a Badger twice over and an epidemic intelligence service officer with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a month among villagers in Grand Cape Mount County was a chance to embody the work she believes in.

“My experience taught me you have to trust science,” she says. “I wanted to show that you can give patient-centered care and be safe.”

Thursday, Feb. 12, Kirking (BS ’04, MD ‘10), who is also a lieutenant commander in the U.S. Public Health Service, returns to University of Wisconsin-Madison to present a Global Health Seminar Series talk on “The Ebola Epidemic in West Africa: How epidemiology informs an international response.”

The seminar, presented by the UW-Madison Global Health Institute, begins at 5 p.m. in Room 1345 at the Health Sciences Learning Center.

Hannah Kirking
Hannah Kirking

“It’s a joyous full circle to have Hannah return to UW-Madison,” says Lori DiPrete Brown, GHI associate director for education and engagement. “She’s coming back to the space where she learned about global health and is now educating those same teachers about current issues in global health.” Kirking also will speak to about 300 undergraduate students in the “Introduction to “Public Health: Local to Global Perspectives” course.

Kirking was one of the first recipients of the Graduate/Professional Certificate in Global Health, and her international public health journey has also taken her to Kenya, Myanmar, the U.S. border with Mexico. In her positions with CDC and the Public Health Service, she responds to public health emergencies and disease outbreaks nationally and internationally.

In Liberia, the CDC crunched epidemiological data, established case numbers and identified hot spots and how the disease was progressing in order to inform the Ebola response. Kirking was among the officers embedded in rural counties to help local teams cope with the disease.

“It was the most rewarding and at the same time most frustrating and heartbreaking global health experience I’ve had to date,” Kirking says.

She traveled on muddy roads in a county mostly without cell phone signals. Of two ambulances, one worked sometimes. The guest houses had no running water, and the generator ran for only an hour or two a day.

Hannah Kirking, left, worked with families and health care workers in rural  Liberia to stem the spread of Ebola.
Hannah Kirking, left, worked with families and health care workers in rural Liberia to stem the spread of Ebola.

Kirking visited patients, showing that caregivers could be compassionate and safe. She worked with colleagues who had to go home sick, and she got to know villagers who died from Ebola and trusted that following science-based safety rules would keep her safe.

“To be able to maintain six feet of distance and not let anyone vomit all over you, you’re OK.”

Kirking’s passion grounded in UW global health

Professor Rick Keller’s history of medicine and international health classes first piqued Kirking’s interest in global health. “I kind of loved it,” she says. “It opened my eyes.” She spent a year as a biomedical engineer for GE Healthcare Technologies and studied international health and human rights at the University of Oslo.

Returning to UW-Madison for her medical education, Kirking gravitated toward the fledgling Center for Global Health, the precursor to GHI. She worked with the Center’s steering committee to expand international health opportunities for students and earned her global health certificate.

“When I was in medical school, and residency as well, global issues or perspectives seemed far away,” Kirking says. “The Center was a place to nurture those interests, or I may have lost them.”

Global health showed Kirking the tight ties between clinical medicine and public health. “Global health doesn’t focus just on a disease, bacteria or virus,” she says. “It acknowledges the rest of players in the equation. I love clinical medicine … but those other factors don’t always get enough attention, and those factors are important.”

Working in public health is where Kirking wants to be, and she credits the Certificate in Global Health for giving her a base on which to build her career. “The overall big picture is the big benefit I’ve taken away,” she says. She also carries with her the Wisconsin Idea, with its commitment to outreach, and the Midwestern ethic that call for taking care of neighbors and building community.

Kirking also credits her global health success to the passion of mentors, DiPrete Brown and Cindy Haq, a professor of family medicine. “It’s contagious, but in a good way,” she says.

The Global Health Institute is committed to connecting communities at UW-Madison, in Wisconsin and across the world to advance equitable and sustainable health for people, animals and the ecosystem. GHI is supported by public and private funds. To learn more, visit You can also make a gift online at

By Ann Grauvogl, Feb. 4, 2015

Roads were muddy, and cell phone reception, running water and electricity are limited in rural Liberia. (Photo by Hannah Kirking.)
Roads were muddy, and cell phone reception, running water and electricity are limited in rural Liberia. (Photo by Hannah Kirking.)