ON FLU'S FRONTLINES
Med school alum a leader in national, international efforts
In 2005, Keiji Fukuda MD '83 reflected on the intersection of politics, media, world health, and flu outbreaks. At the time, Fukuda was team leader of the influenza branch of the epidemiology unit at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "You have to be a little careful about crying wolf, or crying Y2K," he said, "and not trumpeting too much that's still theoretical while trumpeting enough so that what needs to be done gets done. It's a bit of a tightrope walk."
Same tightrope, bigger stage as Fukuda was fresh in a new role at the World Health Organization when H1N1, aka swine flu, hit the headlines last spring. Unless you were in a media blackout, chances are you read a story or watched a report with Fukuda fielding questions as the key person heading up the WHO's flu strategy.
Dr. Fukuda's personal roots are in Vermont and his professional training was at the UVM College of Medicine. His father, a fifth-generation physician, came from Japan to Vermont for an anesthesia fellowship and stayed on, making his career and raising his family in Barre. Fukuda and one of his siblings, brother Christopher (MD '85), would continue the family tradition in medicine.
Keiji Fukuda left Vermont for his undergraduate work at Oberlin College, where he fell in love with the cello and hoped to become a filmmaker. But after his sophomore year, his thinking shifted with the experience of nine months backpacking across Asia, the Middle East, and Western Europe. "It made me realize that I loved traveling, I loved being overseas, and I did not want to be a tourist or a voyeur. I wanted to actually do something."
Initially resistant to following in the family footsteps, Fukuda eventually decided that medicine was his best option. Once Fukuda made that decision, the choice of the UVM College of Medicine was clear. In addition to financial considerations and the fact that he wanted to return to Vermont, "The school itself just seemed right for me," he says. "It has a really humanistic approach to medicine and also in its approach to medical education. It's not gigantic and not too small. There's just something human-sized and human-voiced about the education there."
Between his second and third year of medical school, Fukuda spent six months overseas working for a small health and welfare organization that provided services to indigenous tribes in the Tamilnadu region of South India. His time in India confirmed Fukuda's interest in international medicine: "Travel really made me think that there are some problems that are almost intractable and almost impossible to figure out. I wanted to work on problems like malaria."
In 1996, working as an officer at the CDC, Fukuda was approached by the influenza group to become their epidemiology section chief, an opportunity to "shape a fairly small team and establish a direction," he says. It also bore some similarities to the infectious disease that had first intrigued him. Like malaria, Fukuda says, "It was really not apparent to me how one could ever address something like influenza in terms of how to control it and prevent it." Plus, he adds, the response to flu at the time was very different: "Back then it really was under the radar screen. Most people thought of it as just another severe cold–and that really galled me."
Flu no longer flies under the radar but, at times, that might be helpful for Fukuda and his international colleagues. From vaccine shortages to avian flu to swine flu, the subject now grabs frequent headlines. While Fukuda is pleased that people now recognize the serious nature of a potential flu pandemic, he is troubled about the intensity focused on every piece of news about the flu and how that attention can compromise global health security. "The balance between politics and media and science in many of our estimations is really beginning to become upset, so that many of the scientific considerations are getting less and less time at the table," Fukuda says. "That, for me, is worrying. No matter how you play the politics, no matter how glossy the images, it's really about the biology, the science. It's what those viruses are doing that counts."
A longer version of this story originally appeared in the spring 2005 issue of Vermont Medicine, the UVM College of Medicine's alumni publication.
Keiji Fukuda, MD'83
Leads the World Health Organization's strategy on the H1N1 flu virus.
ON HEALTH AND MEDIA
"There has always been this triangle where politics and media communications and science mix together. But a lot of the tools which have helped us do science much better, like computers, have also made media communications a minute-by-minute activity around the clock."
A PROFESSOR'S VIEW
"Keiji always hesitates before he speaks, but when he does, it's perfect."
Professor Alan Rubin, MD, one of Fukuda's former teachers at the UVM
College of Medicine