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United States

Disease lab mystery: CDC researcher left work sick two weeks ago – then vanished

Harvard-trained epidemiologist Timothy Cunningham has been a rising star at the US Centres for Disease Control and a prominent figure in Atlanta

PUBLISHED : Monday, 26 February, 2018, 1:03pm
UPDATED : Monday, 26 February, 2018, 1:15pm

Timothy Cunningham has been a rising official at the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.

The Harvard-educated epidemiologist was promoted in July at the US public health service in Atlanta, and contributed to responses following outbreaks of Zika, Ebola and health emergencies resulting from Hurricane Sandy. He was also a prominent fixture in the Atlanta community, earning a spot in Atlanta Business Chronicle’s 40 under 40 Awards last year.

But the researcher who studies disease patterns was not feeling well on February 12, and left work around midday.

I feel like I’m in a horrible ‘Black Mirror’ episode
Tiara Cunningham, sister of Timothy Cunningham

“I feel like I’m in a horrible ‘Black Mirror’ episode,” his sister, Tiara Cunningham, told The New York Times, describing the dystopian sci-fi television show. “I’m kind of lost without him, to be quite honest.”

She told the paper she speaks with her brother often, but their conversation on February 12 left her concerned. “He sounded not like himself,” she said. He did not reply to a text message she sent later, and their mother Tia-Juana did not contact him either.

Cunningham’s father, Terrell, and mother drove all night from their home in Waldorf, Maryland, to Atlanta, arriving on Valentine’s Day. Their discoveries inside their son’s home raised more questions, including Cunningham’s unattended dog Mr Bojangles and their son’s wallet, cellphone and driving licence. His car was also in the garage, the Times reported.

Terrell also had concerns about recent interactions with his son, who described him as focused on a host of professional and personal issues.

“The tone, and the numerous exchanges gave us reason to be concerned about Tim,” he said. “And I don’t know if it’s an instinct you have because it’s your child, but it was not a normal conversation and I was not comfortable.” The family did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The Atlanta Police Department said Sunday it was still unable to locate Cunningham after learning about his disappearance on February 16, and was depending on public awareness to help draw leads. Foul play is not suspected at this time, police spokesman Donald Hannah said in a statement.

The CDC said Cunningham was a “highly respected member of our CDC family,” ABC News reported. CDC did not return a request for comment.

In his 40 under 40 profile last year, Cunningham said that he was “using the skills I have to improve and help the lives of others,” referring to his work at CDC.

The publication said he was continuing on his family’s path into medical care – his father was an Air Force nurse for 30 years, and his mother worked for the state health department as a programme manager.

Leonte Benton, a friend who met Cunningham in a professional development group, said Cunningham “consistently made an impact on the local community and throughout the world.”

The Cunningham family, meanwhile, continues their own dogged search as they sort out the bewildering episode.

“We just hope he will just come home safely. None of this makes sense. He wouldn’t just evaporate like this and leave his dog alone and have our mother wondering and worrying like this. He wouldn’t,” Cunningham’s brother Anterio told Fox 5 in Atlanta.