Pressing questions, informed answers

23 October 2002 |

Public Affairs staff frequently sit down with campus experts to share their takes on current events with the wider public. The following excerpts are from recent Q&A sessions; the full texts can be read online on the UC Berkeley website.

Deciphering the Middle East
Q&A with regional expert Nezar AlSayyad

With the U.S. Congress authorizing the use of force against Iraq, the Middle East is on everyoneís minds. Yet few of us can name all the countries that make up the region, or even begin to describe their histories and governments. As part of an ongoing series, Bonnie Azab Powell of the Berkeley web team turned to Nezar AlSayyad, who has been chair of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies since 1995, for a crash course in the Middle East.

Without a common geography, language, ethnicity, or even religion, what unites the group of countries we call the Middle East?
Like much of the Third World, itís a very specific history and heritage of colonialism, institutions that were left behind by either the British or the French when they colonized these countries. Thereís also no doubt that Islam is another factor that in a sense unifies the Middle East. Although Islam is not the religion of all countries in the Middle East, nor does the presence of Islam make a country Middle Eastern, by and large the history of the Arab empire does happen to be also a history of the Islamic empire. And it is an empire that extended in a very short time, less than 200 years, to encompass precisely this territory that I am talking about.

Another defining similarity is the nationalist struggles that many of these countries have engaged in to free themselves from their colonizers. But this last point is connected to something else, which is maybe a fourth factor: the emergence of a particular geography of political structure. Much of the contemporary Middle East is divided into specific nation-states with international borders that they did not choose, that were imposed as a result of international deals the British and French made with tribes, monarchies, and other regimes earlier in this century. Again, the Middle East is not an exception in this regard ó much of the third world was also carved up the same way, but I think you see it more in the Middle East.

To learn more about the diverse governments of the region, the rights that women there enjoy (or donít), why the Middle East opposes U.S. intervention in Iraq, and why AlSayyad thinks Islam is here to stay, read the full Q&A with him at

The pros and cons of massive smallpox vaccinations
Q&A with epidemiologist Dr. Arthur Reingold

Dr. Reingold, professor and head of epidemiology at the School of Public Health, will be heading the campusís new Center for Infectious Disease Preparedness, one of 19 academic centers for public-health preparedness funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The center will provide training for frontline health-and-safety workers in the event of a bioterrorist attack or infectious disease outbreak. He recently met with Public Affairs staff to discuss concerns relating to last weekís CDC recommendation that more than 500,000 hospital workers nationwide be vaccinated against smallpox..

The side effects of the smallpox vaccine are frightening. They range from severe skin rashes to brain infections to death. How do you balance those risks against the threat of an attack?
I think everybody would agree that if somebody releases smallpox virus in the world today, it would be a worldwide public-health disaster. I think itís also fair to say that if somebody released smallpox at JFK airport, among people getting on airplanes to hundreds of cities that day, we could have tens of millions of people dead a couple of months later because effectively no one in the world is immune to smallpox. It would be an unmitigated disaster ó if it happens.

The problem is, the risk of someone unleashing the smallpox virus is unknown. It could be zero. But the people who worry about security issues will tell you they have reason to be concerned. Theyíll talk about how the facility in Russia [the Russian State Research Center of Virology and Biotechnology] had not been guarded very well and how some scientists who used to work there have not been accounted for and how others werenít paid for a long time. And who knows where they are now and what they took in their pockets? And who knows what some Iraqis have buried in some cave? Well, how do you respond to that? You canít argue and say thatís not true.

One extreme view is that if we give everybody the smallpox vaccine, smallpox can no longer be an effective weapon against the United States because the overwhelming majority of our population will be immune.

But in the meantime, if we give the vaccine to 300 million people in the United States, we can give you a reasonable estimate that about one in a million people vaccinated will die from the vaccine. Weíre balancing known fatalities with this unknown, unquantifiable possibility of some mega-catastrophe. Iím not a policy person. I donít know how you make that decision.

The whole question of what to do about the smallpox vaccine has been a moving target now for some time, particularly in the past 12 months. Nothing about the science has changed in this interval. This discussion is being driven by politics. For example, Vice-President Cheney recently came out with a strong position about the use of the smallpox vaccine. Clearly when youíre talking about the vice-president of the United States wanting to see people vaccinated, youíre talking about something thatís based in large part on politics and not necessarily science or public health.

To learn more about the risks and benefits associated with smallpox vaccination, and the possibility that the smallpox virus might be genetically modified by bioterrorists, read the full Q&A with Dr. Reingold at


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