Is there an anthrax doctor in the house?

Scoops are few and desperation is catching at the annual conference of the Infectious Diseases Society of America.

Published October 26, 2001 4:42PM (EDT)

Thursday, Day 1 of the 39th Annual Meeting of the Infectious Diseases Society of America. Doctors and researchers put their heads down and try to slip past grabby reporters. It doesn't work. The presenters' badges might say things like Group B Streptococci and T Cell Activation, but the media had already made up its mind: They're here, they're wearing glasses and by god they're going to talk about anthrax.

This conference of infectious disease experts, held at San Francisco's Moscone Center, was planned long before America started microwaving its mail. Participants flew in to present months and, in some cases, years of research. They'd authored papers such as "The Ecology of Vancomycin-Resistant Enterococcus Colonization in a Medical Intensive Care Unit" and "Predictive Value of Cold Chills in Patients Presenting to the Emergency Ward with Fever." But as one doctor put it, the conference had been hijacked: Suddenly the outside world only cared about bioterrorism.

The press, supposedly representing the outside world, wanted answers and in the meantime drank juice in a carpeted conference room. Someone from IDSA attempted to match the corralled journalists with appropriate experts. The experts had pagers and could be summoned for interviews. Problem was, everybody wanted a bioterrorism expert, and there weren't many.

So the media drank juice. The old newspapermen squinted at conference itineraries over their spectacles. What's this anthrax stuff? they growled. The TV people were poised and had the pantsuits to prove it. They sidled up to a discussion about spore diameters and cocked an eyebrow. But isn't fear also an infectious disease? they asked.

I spoke with Dr. Steven Black, co-director of Kaiser Permanente's Vaccine Study Center in Oakland, Calif. Black was there for other reasons, but he knew a bit about anthrax. We found an empty hallway. Black, a kindly meningitis and pneumonia researcher, did not break the anthrax mystery wide open. He pointed out that relatively few people had died, that crossing the street is still more dangerous, etc. What about washing your hands with soap? I asked. Isn't it true that this is actually a bad idea with anthrax? Black demurred. Maybe, he said.

A radio man with a big face approached us and stuck a microphone between us. Soon another man with a microphone came over and did the same. The microphone guys, like me, thought this doctor might reveal whether America was going to wither up next week.

Black humored the anthrax questions but pointed out that all this focus on anthrax means we're forgetting about far deadlier diseases. "The flu will kill many more people this year," he said.

"Is anthrax actually drawing resources away from other illnesses?" I asked.

"Oh, yes." Black said a researcher friend recently got a call from NIH: "'Drop everything,' they told him."

A radio guy jumped in with another anthrax question, then another. These were remedial: Should we worry about other bioweapons? Is smallpox even worse than anthrax? The doctor put his hands in his pocket and answered. Yes, smallpox would be bad. Smallpox has a fatality rate of up to 50 percent. National vaccination might happen in the future.

The conversation wound down and the microphone men switched off. Anthrax still eluded us. Black looked tired when we thanked each other and parted. I heard him bump into a colleague. Are we going to talk about what we came to talk about? he asked. They walked down the hall.

Later I found a doctor from Georgia talking to a patient on his cellphone. When he got off, I asked him if all the talk about bioterrorism was derailing the conference. He shrugged. "All the real experts on that stuff are still working on it," he said. "They're back in Washington."

Later, on my way out, I approached a cluster of reporters who had circled another doctor. This one seemed to be an expert in HIV. There was a question about anthrax, but the doctor shook her head. The reporters went back into the room with the juice.

By Chris Colin

Chris Colin is the author most recently of "Blindsight," published by the Atavist.

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