“We can do better in protecting the health and safety of swimmers,” Michele Hlavsa asserts. It is that mantra that keeps her going as chief of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Healthy Swimming Program.
Hlavsa did not grow up with a specific connection to aquatics, but she has always felt a call to service. Her undergraduate education at the College of New Jersey was in nursing, and she began her professional life as a cardiac nurse at Morristown Medical Center in Morristown, N.J.
When she came upon a patient who had recently undergone angioplasty sitting with his wife and eating a McDonald’s Big Mac, she realized she wanted her work to have a broader impact.
Soon after that incident, she took a position in hospital infection control, which led her to pursue a graduate degree in public health at Emory University in Atlanta.
Hlavsa, now 36, fell into aquatics through a graduate school project at the CDC with Dr. Michael Beach, associate director for healthy water. She continued at CDC after graduating from Emory University in 2003, tracking foodborne disease and investigating foodborne outbreaks.
Subsequently she was selected for CDC’s “disease detective group,” the Epidemic Intelligence Service. She left EIS in 2007 and returned to working with Dr. Beach in CDC’s Healthy Swimming Program.
“It was his enthusiasm for healthy swimming that got me going in this direction,” Hlavsa says.
Since coming on board, Hlavsa has been instrumental in tracking cryptosporidium outbreaks and improving reporting systems, launching the Model Aquatic Health Code, and publishing the 2008 pool inspection study report. But she says there’s a lot more work to be done.
“This is such a young field and there are so many opportunities to move forward and make things better,” Hlavsa says. “Crypto has totally changed the face of swimming in the United States, and it’s exciting to be at the forefront.”
Within aquatics, she believes the large number of crypto outbreaks in the past few years indicates that the old paradigm — pool operators are solely responsible for making sure pools are clean and chlorine can take care of any germs — isn’t acceptable. The key is changing swimmer attitudes and behaviors. That’s where Hlavsa would like to continue her focus, and in the future, she is hoping to pursue a Ph.D. in behavioral health.
“It’s one thing to investigate outbreaks. It another to figure out how to change the behaviors,” she says.