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Siouxland's Infectious Disease Crusader Ashlesha Kaushik, MD

Jun 22, 2021 07:00AM ● By Med Magazine

By Alex Strauss

Few physicians in the country know more about COVID-19 infection in children and teenagers than UnityPoint Health-St. Luke's Pediatric Infectious Disease specialist Ashlesha Kaushik, MBBS, MD, FAAP. 

Last summer, while the rest of the world was still trying to wrap its head around the scope of the pandemic and ICUs across the country were filling up with sick patients, Kaushik was already publishing papers on multisystem inflammatory syndrome (MIS-C), one of the most serious illnesses caused by SARS-CoV-2 infection in young patients. 

Kaushik, winner of the CDC 2019 Childhood Immunization Champion Award, also serves as the hospital's Director of Antimicrobial Stewardship. In the past year, she has published 13 papers and abstracts, including a report on UnityPoint Health's impressively low COVID-19 mortality rate and a systematic review of MIS-C in the Pediatric Infectious Disease Journal, which has become one of the most referenced articles on the subject. 

When she is not working on her own research, she is often reading the research of others as a peer reviewer for 35+ medical journals and the Pediatric Academic Society's annual meeting. 

Dr. Kaushik's work earned her nominations to the prestigious New York Academy of Medicine and the Midwest Society for Pediatric Research and an elected position as an overseas fellow of the Royal Society of Medicine, UK. 

"Research and publication are my personal passions," says Dr. Kaushik. "Clinical investigation is what I usually do."

Spreading the Word About Spreading Infections

In fact, Dr. Kaushik has a lot of personal passions. Almost all of them revolve around fighting the bugs that threaten human health. 

"Antimicrobial stewardship is really the need of the hour," says Kaushik. "Antibiotic-resistant microbes are becoming a bigger threat globally because of overuse. We have to continue to share the basics of infection control and the principle of using the most narrow antibiotic possible for the problem."

The message has hit home for UnityPoint Health-St. Luke's, which has reduced its own antibiotic use by 50 percent in the last three years. 

Now, Kaushik has committed herself to sharing the message in an even bigger way. A member of the Board of Directors of Iowa's Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), she was appointed last year as a national spokesperson for the AAP. Since then, Dr. Kaushik has conducted more than 20 media interviews with news outlets around the world.

She's also spreading the word as one of ten national faculty members for the CDC Project Firstline/AAP Infection Prevention and Control Extension for Community Healthcare Outcomes (AAP IPC ECHO) program. The program aims to provide pediatricians and pediatric providers with the most up-to-date information on infection prevention and COVID-19 control. 

"Providers have been so appreciative and enthusiastic about this," says Dr. Kaushik. "This is really needed education. It is still a very new pandemic for all of us and we are trying to make sure that we are following the latest CDC guidance and doing evidence-backed things."

In a series of live webinars, Kaushik and her fellow faculty members share the latest on PPE use, preventing transmission, mitigating staff shortages, risk assessment, and infection control principles. Participants have the chance to share and discuss cases and get answers to their questions.

"I have really loved my roles of educating not just my local patients and family, but also all of those providers nationally and parents all around the world," she says. "It has been an amazing journey."

For the Love of Medicine

That journey started early for Dr. Kaushik who grew up in an "intellectually stimulating" home in India. Her parents, both published authors themselves, tell her she was "examining" her stuffed animals at three years old, recruiting friends to be her "nurses".  

"I was always the doctor," she recalls. "That's all I wanted to be."

Dr. Kaushik developed a passion for pediatric infectious disease during her medical training at Sawai Man Singh Medical College and Hospital in India, where she regularly saw patients with vaccine-preventable illnesses like measles. After graduation, she completed her residency at New York's St. Joseph's Regional Medical Center and went on to a pediatric infectious disease fellowship program at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. 

"I was so fortunate to be selected for a fellowship with some of the founding fathers of pediatric infectious diseases," she says. "It was an incredible opportunity."

The final piece of her education was a certification in Pediatrics Leadership from Harvard Medical School. 

Dr. Kaushik says she was attracted to Siouxland for the opportunity to not only bring pediatric infectious disease expertise to the area, but also the chance to support antimicrobial stewardship at UnityPoint Health and to take part in medical education. She is now a Clinical Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Iowa (UI) Carver College of Medicine and is a resident preceptor at the Siouxland Medical Education Foundation. 

Physicians as the Front Line of Defense

Dr. Kaushik lives her belief that education - of providers, patients, and parents - is the way forward through this and any future pandemics. Her message to her medical colleagues locally and around the world is twofold: limit antibiotic use and advocate for vaccines.

"Antibiotic use is a lot more judicious now than it used to be and that is commendable," acknowledges Kaushik. But she warns physicians not to let their guard down. "We need to continue to be mindful of using the right antibiotic for the right bug. If you have to start with a broad-spectrum, if you don't grow anything on the cultures then always narrow down." 

While not every infection is preventable, Kaushik says primary care doctors should not underestimate their role in driving vaccinations for those that are, including COVID-19.

"A strong word from the pediatrician has been shown to be a powerful tool for countering misinformation," says Dr. Kaushik. "Patients trust their doctors and look to them for advice. So give them facts and details. Say 'I advise this vaccine' rather than saying 'Would you like to get this vaccine today?' Advise them up front. Then, if they have questions, you can counsel them." 

And to fellow healthcare providers who have worked so hard during this difficult year and are alarmed and frustrated by what Kaushik calls a "second pandemic" of misinformation, she has these words of encouragement:

"We need to remember that all of the strides that we have made in fighting infectious diseases is because of belief in science. That's what we have to focus on."