Kayleigh Bull, Germany, University of Illinois, May 23, 2014

We started out the last day of the week by going to the Robert Koch Institute. We were greeted by Christina Frank, who gave us an introduction to what the Robert Koch Institute does. To put it simply, they are comparable to the Center for Disease Control in the United States. They are a “central institution of federal government for disease surveillance and prevention.” They are tasked with surveillance, outbreak investigations and epidemiological studies, all of which lead to prevention and control of disease. One interesting piece of information we were given was how the incidence of S. enteritidis has been on a decline in recent years. They showed us a graph and it clearly showed that the decline began the year that a new law for poultry vaccination was put in place. It was great to see how their studies and surveillance work out.

We were fortunate enough to listen to a few more lectures at the Robert Koch Institute. One of the most interesting in my opinion was on the STEC O104 outbreak in Germany in 2014. This was a form of E. coli that had not been seen in humans before and the source of the outbreak was completely unknown. We were able to go through the process of a full outbreak investigation and see how organizations like the Robert Koch Institute work to solve a mystery. One interesting part of the mystery was that one of the cases only drove through Germany and did not actually spend any time in the country that the outbreak originated from. However, that case did stop and get a sandwich as they drove through so that piece of information helped them narrow down a possible culprit. In the end, infected bean sprout seeds from a certain supplier were found to be the cause, even though all actual seeds that were tested did not show any signs of the pathogen. All evidence pointed to sprouts and that conclusion was especially hard to come to since sprouts are not something people usually remember eating. Many times they are just used as a garnish.

The next discussion we had was on Yersiniosis and Campylobacteriosis in Germany. This was not an actual outbreak investigation but a study that the Robert Koch Institute was conducting. This country has an especially high incidence of Y. enterocolitica and their Campylobacter cases have been increasing in recent years. Their study is a case-control, which brought me back to the bad memories of Epidemiology class but made me remember why we learn about these topics. This was a great talk to show us that there are not always large outbreaks to investigate but that does not mean that the people at the Robert Koch Institute aren’t hard at work monitoring disease.

Another lecture we attended was on a Trichinellosis outbreak in 2013. This was different from the other outbreak we discussed because the source in this case was known. A mistake was made at a slaughter facility and a boar that had tested positive for Trichinella made it into the food chain before anyone realized that a perfectly healthy boar had been pulled from the line. This turned into a case of educating the public, contacting cases and working with physicians. In the end, prophylactic treatment and early intervention was found to be much better than prolonging the start of treatment. After this incident, slaughter facilities changed their policies to prevent another honest mistake like this from happening.

Each talk that we attended at the Robert Koch Institute was extremely informative. I only mentioned the big points on some of my favorite topics because I could have typed much more than your typical blog entry. We were honored to be in such an important institution. I really enjoyed how interactive the speakers were in walking us through each step in their process.

The next part of our agenda was to get lunch. We went to the area surrounding the Berlin Zoo, where we had more than enough options to satisfy our hunger. Everyone got something delicious from a home-made sandwich to a stir fry meal. We then met at the front gate of the Berlin Zoo where we met with a zoologist that works there. She was very informative and led us around some of the most interesting parts of the zoo. We learned everything from how an elephant’s hair looks (some of us are still convinced that she was giving us a piece of plastic string to hold) to behavior in great apes. A few interesting facts we learned was that they have a gorilla there named Fatou that is the oldest gorilla in captivity. She is 57 years old and is one of the last wild caught gorillas in zoos today now that there is a much more established breeding program. My personal favorite part was when we went into the hippo exhibit and were able to go behind the scenes to view the hippos from a platform above their enclosure. We were able to get a bird’s eye view of the baby hippo sitting on top of its mother’s back so that it could hold its nose up above the water line. We also learned that, during World War II, that hippo exhibit was bombed and badly damaged. Both adult hippos died and nobody could find the baby. Days later, however, they found the young hippo in an underground subway station. They were able to bring him back to the zoo and keep him healthy where he lived for a very long time. In fact, many hippos in zoos around the world can have their genetics traced back to him.

We all had time to explore the rest of the zoo, which was stunning. We all enjoyed seeing such a diverse range of species. Then, we headed back to our hotel that was right at the historic Checkpoint Charlie. Many of us explored the area and ate our new favorite meal: Doner Kebaps. They are basically crispy pita pockets filled with lamb meat, cabbage, lettuce, greens and sauce. It was great to get such a fantastic meal for such a reasonable price from the street vendors all over Berlin. We were never hungry and if we were we were luckily never far from food! The city was amazing to explore, even after such a busy day!