After taking her 5-month-old daughter and two sons to Disneyland in late 2014, Dr. Cara Christ got a very personal reminder about the importance of childhood vaccinations.
The very same time she and her family visited, an outbreak of measles had begun at the California theme park. Ultimately, more than 145 people across the United States were infected, exposing a troubling and emerging trend of people choosing not to vaccinate their children.
Because her baby was too young to be vaccinated, Christ says she was relying on other people’s decision to protect her child. She found herself in a wait-and-worry mode until the measles’ 21-day incubation period passed without her baby getting sick.
“They don’t make vaccines for just the common cold, they make vaccines for diseases that are debilitating or could kill you,” says Christ, who is now the director of the Arizona Department of Health Services. “It’s so important that you not only get vaccines for yourself and your child, but that you get vaccines to protect other people in the community.”
As the state’s top health official, Christ is on the front lines responding to and containing disease outbreaks — from measles to tuberculosis and Zika. Her agency is also tasked with regulating health- and child-care facilities and improving the overall health and wellness of all Arizonans.
Christ was born in Missouri but grew up in Tempe. As early as elementary school, she remembers being fascinated by books about disease detectives, including Michael Crichton’s “Andromeda Strain” and Robin Cook’s “Outbreak.”
“Through high school and college, I continued to learn more about becoming a disease detective and what path I wanted to take. Originally, I had wanted to work in the special pathogens branch at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,” says Christ, who has a master’s degree in microbiology from Arizona State University.
In the meantime, she kept bumping into her now husband, Jason Christ. The two met in a lifeguard-training class at Kiwanis Wave Pool in Tempe while they were both in high school. (Jason attended Red Mountain High in Mesa and Cara attended Corona del Sol in Tempe.)
“We weren’t high school sweethearts, but throughout high school and college we kept randomly bumping into each other … teaching swimming lessons together, ending up in the same ASU classes,” she says. “We bumped into each other at a restaurant on Mill Avenue, and it finally stuck.”
The Gilbert couple will celebrate their 15th anniversary this year. A former teacher and school administrator, Jason recently decided to stay home with the couple’s children: 9-year-old Max, 5-year-old Ashton and 2-year-old Emmie.
Christ loves her job, but like any working mom, she acknowledges work-life balance can be tough.
“My husband now is a stay-at-home dad, and I kind of have to live vicariously through him. He’s the one who will take them to swimming lessons and drop them off for running club and take them to piano lessons,” she says. “So by the time I get home, we’re having dinner, we are doing homework, we are practicing the piano, and then it’s bedtime. I miss some of that daily life.”
Christ took a job as an infectious disease epidemiologist at AZDHS after getting her masters, then attended the University of Arizona College of Medicine. She returned to the department as medical director for epidemiology and disease control after her residency and became AZDHS director in May 2015.
One of Christ’s points of pride at AZDHS is her Infant at Work Program that allows moms, dads, foster parents, surrogate parents and grandparents to bring a baby (6 months or younger) with them to work. Gov. Doug Ducey announced the program would be expanding to more state agencies this year.
Christ says she also took advantage of the program when Emmie was born.
“I did have to take my first baby to day care at six weeks, and that was a heart-wrenching decision. I almost didn’t come back to work,” she recalls. “With my last baby, I came back early at five-and-a-half weeks, because I was ready to come back, and I knew she could come with me.”
Arizona’s youngest patients
Christ, 41, takes a special interest in ensuring the youngest Arizonans are getting what they need to be healthy.
In addition to increasing vaccination rates, Christ’s biggest concerns for Arizona children include curtailing childhood obesity. She hopes the agency’s Empower Pack program, which offers financial incentives (in the form of reduced licensing fees) to child-care facilities to implement good eating habits for children, will continue to make a difference.
Back in 2008, she says, 29.4 percent of preschoolers in Arizona’s Women, Infants and Children Program were either overweight or obese. This past year, that number went down to 24.1 percent. Some of that credit goes to Empower Pack, which is designed to give kids the skills and knowledge they need in their own lives to bring those numbers down.
“Teaching children how to eat, making sure they know they need fruits and vegetables, drink plenty of water, get an hour of exercise a day — all of those are emphasized (at child-care centers) and are going to help children lead longer, healthier lives,” Christ says.
On the vaccination front, Christ is trying to make it more convenient for parents to obtain immunization records. She is concerned that some families request exemptions at schools and day care centers simply because of the time and effort required to provide paperwork.
“Sometimes (parents find) it’s just easier to sign a vaccine exemption form versus making an appointment to go in and get the child’s vaccine records,” Christ says. “So what we are trying to do is make obtaining those vaccine records easier. We’re trying to make them available online. We are working with physician’s offices on that recordkeeping.”
Another early-childhood initiative is the state’s newborn screening program. Through hospitals all newborns, more than 80,000 babies each year, are screened for 29 disorders — including congenital disorders, heart defects and hearing loss. Early screening, detection and quick treatment of the disorders can be life-saving.
One of the many things Christ loves about her work is that her own children are enthusiastic about her job. She tells them she doesn’t have just one patient, but that the whole state is her patient.