Bioterrorism expert is voice of reason, reassurance during anthrax scare

By Fernando Quintero



Professor Art Reingold, head of the School of Public Health’s Division of Epidemiology, studies infectious diseases and their prevention.
Noah Berger photo

31 October 2001 | Epidemiology professor and bioterrorism expert Arthur Reingold used to speak in theoretical terms and hypothetical language about his areas of expertise. Now all that has changed, and he finds it both “sobering and depressing.”

“I think we all became complacent. We took things for granted. We focused on the mundane issues,” said the head of the Division of Epidemiology in the School of Public Health, who was named a technical expert by Gov. Gray Davis in the aftermath of Sept. 11. It’s a “real shock,” he said, to be dealing with bioterrorism in practice.

As mailed anthrax spores continued to spread disease in the East and fear throughout the nation, Reingold has been swamped with media calls and requests for information.

An epidemiologist who focuses on infectious diseases and their prevention, he has studied a number of infectious diseases in the United States, among them Legionnaires’ disease, Lyme disease and AIDS. And he has investigated diseases on other continents, including Africa and Latin America.

Before joining Berkeley, he served as assistant chief of a bacterial diseases branch of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

To the public, he is a voice of reassurance and reason. Anthrax currently poses a “negligible” risk to the average U.S. citizen, he said at a recent seminar addressing key public health issues in light of the past month’s events. “The government’s message — ‘smile, be happy, shop’ — just doesn’t have the right feel to it,” he said in an Oct. 22 talk in Sibley Auditorium. “On the other hand, we don’t want people to panic.”

At home, Reingold practices what he preaches.

“Each morning I get up, get my work done, meet my students, go shopping, make dinner for my children. We open our mail. Is this denial? I don’t think so. We’re not prominent public figures. A substantial risk of anthrax is not that great for us,” he said in his Haviland Hall office, flanked by photographs of his three young children and his wife, UCSF adjunct faculty member Gail Bolan, director of the Sexually Transmitted Disease branch of the California Department of Health Services. “Could there be a catastrophic event? Yes. Should we change our day-to-day lives? I don’t think so.”

Public concern over anthrax and other forms of biological warfare, some of them lethal, has changed his work life considerably. “There is an immediacy that is often lacking in academics on a day-to-day basis,” he said. “I feel I have more of a sense of purpose these days.”

Reingold first studied medicine with the idea of pursuing a career in research. “My vision was to go to medical school, do some teaching and clinical work,” said the native of Chicago’s Southside.

After earning his medical degree from the University of Chicago and completing his clinical training, he began his career as an epidemiologist working for the Centers for Disease Control in Connecticut. He had thought that CDC would be only a career step. Instead it was a life-changing experience.

“I thought I would be there for only two years; I ended up staying for eight, and making epidemiology and public health my career for the next 20.”

His stint with the CDC obviously made a lasting impact. “I was turned around by the experience. I found it intellectually challenging. I enjoy medical detective work as a long-time fan of detective novels and a doer of puzzles.”

It was also the CDC that brought Reingold to Berkeley. The federal agency assigned him to conduct epidemiological research on campus while his wife finished her medical training at Stanford.

Reingold’s commitment to public health continues to this day.
Along with his state-appointed post as technical expert, he is co-director of the California Emerging Infections Program. Much of his research still involves close collaboration with state, local and federal health departments. On campus he has worked closely with researchers like Epidemiology Professor Lee Riley, who probes the tricks bacteria use to invade cells.

“Berkeley has afforded a wonderfully rich environment with exceptional students, faculty and staff,” said Reingold, although he confessed he has not taken advantage of all the campus has to offer “between three young kids, my work and a working wife.”

With his services in high demand these days, he is unlikely to enjoy much “down time” soon.

“I don’t see any quick fixes or long-term solutions to the problem of biological terrorism,” he said. “Thirty years of benign neglect has left substantial holes in our public health system, with everything from insufficient funding to working conditions making us far less prepared for a catastrophe than we could be.”


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