Medicine Man

Duane Gubler is leading the fight against tropical diseases in the region

April, 2004

In the new millennium, you don’t have to actually come down with a disease anymore to be hurt by it. Thanks to a global economy, flu strains and fevers halfway around the world can easily infect a Hawaii company’s bottom line, and traditional quarantines can’t do much about it.

Of the parade of infectious tropical disease epidemics originating in Asia and the Pacific in the past 10 years-SARS, the plague, Japanese encephalitis, avian flu, Hong Kong flu-only dengue fever has actually reached Hawaii’s shores. But they’ve all had a negative impact on Hawaii’s economy, to varying degrees, simply by shaking public confidence from afar. The tourism industry is particularly vulnerable. According to figures from the Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism, international passenger counts to Hawaii in March and April 2003 (during the SARS outbreak and the War in Iraq) were down more than 21 percent from the same period in 2002.

Duane Gubler says the answer to the problem is to establish epidemiological laboratories in Asia and Hawaii to identify and contain infectious diseases before they can wreak havoc abroad. He intends to accomplish that with the Asia-Pacific Institute for Tropical Medicine and Infectious Diseases, a new program he is creating at the University of Hawaii’s John A. Burns School of Medicine (JABSOM). Gubler says he intends it to be the “center of the universe” for tropical disease research.

“The program is going to have a tremendous impact on the spread of infectious diseases,” Gubler says, “not only on Asian and Pacific countries, but also in the United States and other developed countries. Our goal is to provide that support and surveillance that will pick up the next SARS virus before it gets on an airplane and flies around the world.”

The institute will include a consortium of existing programs at JABSOM, including scientists from a wide range of disciplines, an expanded graduate program and field sites in several Asian and Pacific countries. It’s in its infancy at the moment, with Gubler in the process of soliciting grants and recruiting scientists. The institute’s permanent facilities, in the JABSOM Kakaako site, are about two years away from being ready, and Gubler is hoping to have all the programs fully functional within five years.

It’s an ambitious project, but, if anyone can do it, it’s Gubler, who has an extensive background in combating tropical diseases. After earning his doctorate from Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health in 1969, he spent 20 years doing field research in Asia, the Pacific and the Caribbean. (During this time, Gubler contracted dengue fever three times, as well as malaria and various bacterial infections, incidents he laughs off as occupational hazards.)

Since 1989 he’s worked for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention National Center in Fort Collins, Colo. as director of the Vector-Borne Infectious Diseases division. At 64, Gubler could have retired, but was drawn by the possibilities of a research institute in Hawaii. He says, “I’m a builder, I guess. I’m not sure I’ll ever retire.”

This isn’t the first time Gubler has worked in Hawaii. He earned his master’s degree from the UH in 1965, and returned to JABSOM after graduating from Johns Hopkins to work at the then-brand-new department of Tropical Medicine and Medical Microbiology until 1975. Gubler says it was hard to get funding back then. “The timing was not right. It was the early ’70s, and there was a lot of complacency that the war on infectious diseases had been won.” In fact, his major professor at Johns Hopkins recommended that he stop studying infectious diseases, because they had all been licked.

After the reappearance of “conquered” diseases, such as tuberculosis and dengue fever, in the past decades, as well as the explosion of newly recognized diseases, the complacency is gone, and Gubler says funding should be easier.

One potential ally in the battle against disease: the business community. Says Gubler: “It’s the global business community’s bottom line that’s being hurt by these diseases, and it’s something that could be prevented.”

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