Ebola Fighter

For Bill Gallo ’84, a recent journey to Liberia was just the latest in his long line of assignments for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Bill Gallo ’84 prepares to board a U.S. military Osprey headed for Liberia. (Photo courtesy of Bill Gallo ’84) Bill Gallo ’84 prepares to board a U.S. military Osprey headed for Liberia. (Photo courtesy of Bill Gallo ’84)

When the call came in telling Bill Gallo ’84 that he’d be leaving his pleasant home in Hawaii, where he is a CDC public health advisor, to head into the Ebola epidemic in West Africa, his response was simple enough.

When and where?

He’s supported HIV programs in an area rife with terror threats. And he’s been at the site of anthrax attacks. This time the assignment was Liberia, where the deadly virus had sickened more than 9,300 people and killed more than 4,100 in a nation no larger than the state of Virginia. That might make most people hesitate, but it’s just the sort of call that comes with the job at the CDC.

Gallo explains: “If you are a firefighter, and the biggest fire hits, why wouldn’t you want to go? This is what you’ve trained to do.”

The front of God's Favor Medicine Store in Liberia. (Photo courtesy of Bill Gallo ’84) The front of God's Favor Medicine Store in Liberia. (Photo courtesy of Bill Gallo ’84)

The former Rollins psychology major has spent nearly three decades with the CDC in jobs that have sent him all over the world. Gallo started in the late 1980s in Miami, where he was tracking HIV transmission and often had to inform infected patients of their test results back in an era when medical science offered almost no hope.

He also supported HIV efforts in Kenya from 2003–2007 when the U.S. embassy was on terror alert, violence was on the rise, and his wife and children flew back to the U.S. for safety. And he was on the scene in New York City, helping the CDC cope with deadly anthrax attacks following 9/11.

A boy stands under an open pavilion that serves as a gas station. (Photo courtesy of Bill Gallo ’84) A boy stands under an open pavilion that serves as a gas station. (Photo courtesy of Bill Gallo ’84)

Why keep taking the tough assignments? “Empowering people to take control of their health is rewarding,” he says.

He credits his family, especially wife, Stacye Simmerson Gallo ’86, for support. Even when they lived in a protected compound in Nairobi, Kenya, where razor wire topped the 10-foot-high walls, the family had a good experience. His son and daughter still say they loved their time and the friends they made in Kenya. “It was a pretty dicey time for a while,” Gallo says. “But it wasn’t constant fear.”

It helps, too, that CDC training gives him confidence that he’ll approach any difficult situation with the latest and best understanding. So before flying to Liberia, Gallo stopped in Atlanta at CDC headquarters to learn how to protect himself from Ebola. Training methods typically included wearing full-body protective suits while someone squirted chocolate syrup on the exterior. The dark liquid represented the invisible deadly virus. Their goal was to get out of the suits without getting any syrup on their clothes or skin. “These are not easy things to do,” Gallo says. “Even for professionals.”

Health workers clean their shoes with sanitizing spray outside of tents that serve as a morgue. (Photo courtesy of Bill Gallo ’84) Health workers clean their shoes with sanitizing spray outside of tents that serve as a morgue. (Photo courtesy of Bill Gallo ’84)

Shortly after training, he and a CDC team touched down in Monrovia, Liberia, in mid-November for a monthlong mission. When they stepped off the  plane, the CDC’s stringent rule went into immediate effect. Do not touch anyone. At any time. Do not even shake hands with a colleague.

Health workers look into a tent that is part of the treatment area for confirmed patients. (Photo courtesy of Bill Gallo ’84) Health workers look into a tent that is part of the treatment area for confirmed patients. (Photo courtesy of Bill Gallo ’84)

When Gallo reported in, he got another surprise. This wasn’t just about making administrative rounds in the country’s capital city. This trip meant flying between sites on U.S. military aircraft (approximately 3,000 troops were sent to help) and slogging through rough terrain. Their mission was to check on the operations designed to contain and suppress the devastating disease. Nevertheless, that was fine by him. The closer he gets to the frontlines, the better his assessments.

Members of the U.S. military's Osprey unit take inventory of supplies. (Photo courtesy of Bill Gallo ’84) Members of the U.S. military's Osprey unit take inventory of supplies. (Photo courtesy of Bill Gallo ’84)

Before long, he was in a vehicle sliding along sloppy, narrow, dirt roads, where trucks sank deep into the mud and had to wait for bulldozers to pull them out. But even in the remote areas, he saw that health efforts were working. Travelers often had to stop several times a day for required hand washings and to allow medical workers to take their temperatures.

The group's vehicles struggle to drive on muddy roads near Barclayville, Liberia. (Photo courtesy of Bill Gallo ’84) The group's vehicles struggle to drive on muddy roads near Barclayville, Liberia. (Photo courtesy of Bill Gallo ’84)

The procedures were part of a multi-national response to halt a startling disease. Gallo was impressed. He urged health workers to remain vigilant and keep reminding local residents about the early signs of Ebola. Much effort was made to help villagers understand their practice of laying hands on the dead was spreading the contagion.

Thanks to efforts by the CDC, Doctors Without Borders, the African Union, the World Health Organization, and others who worked alongside Liberian doctors and nurses, Gallo saw that the spread of Ebola in Liberia was waning at the end of 2014 .

A public sign warns locals about how Ebola can spread. (Photo courtesy of Bill Gallo ’84) A public sign warns locals about how Ebola can spread. (Photo courtesy of Bill Gallo ’84)

Gallo never expected to be in public health. His father, William Gallo, is emeritus professor of music at Rollins and his stepmother, Patricia Lancaster, is emerita dean of the Hamilton Holt School. He figured on following a similar route. Indeed, he was working in a restaurant to earn money for graduate school when he saw a classified ad for a CDC job opening. “I didn’t know what ‘public health’ was when I was in college.”

Fascinated by his first assignment, he sought more opportunities with the agency, and today is the CDC’s Associate Director for Insular Area Support in Hawaii. When not on special hot-zone missions, Gallo helps oversee the use of CDC funds in U.S. territories as well as the Marshall Islands, Republic of Palau, and Micronesia.

Gallo stands near the site of the future Greenville Ebola Treatment Unit. (Photo courtesy of Bill Gallo ’84) Gallo stands near the site of the future Greenville Ebola Treatment Unit. (Photo courtesy of Bill Gallo ’84)

After returning from West Africa, Gallo visited family and friends in Winter Park. In keeping with rules for those arriving from Ebola zones, he informed the Florida Department of Health of his location. Accordingly, a health worker met him everyday to take his temperature and monitor him for signs of Ebola. They found none.

For some, that might not make for such a relaxing journey. For Gallo, though, it was just all in a day’s work. Or, in this case, a day’s vacation.