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Last Updated

04 Mar 2003

Source: New York Times, March 4, 2003


Ready for Smallpox, but Don't Grab the Needle Yet


The stack of brochures in the doctor's office is tough to ignore: smallpox is the theme, and the photos are wince-inducing. Rashes and pustules as Upper East Side coffee table fare?

One would think the president's office at the Children's Health Fund, the mainly mobile clinic Dr. Irwin Redlener and his mission soul mate, the musician Paul Simon, opened in 1987 to provide children free health care, might feature stuffed animals instead of stark pamphlets, but no.

If this is a scare tactic, it's working. Sign us up for an immunization shot! On second thought, don't sign us up. Sometimes the shots kill, too. Best to solicit an informed medical opinion.

Luckily Dr. Redlener, also president of the Children's Hospital at Montefiore Medical Center and organizer of the National Academy of Pediatricians' Task Force on Terrorism, is in the mood to supply his. Always has been: Mom nicknamed him "doc" when he was still in rompers.

Dr. Redlener, 58, bearded and Brooklyn-born, leans precariously forward in his ergonomically incorrect office chair to attack the smallpox question. Make that questions. As adviser to the city's Office of Emergency Management, doubtless he's heard them all before.

If he's bored, he doesn't let on. He may have moved to the administrative side of medicine, but he's still an empathetic listener: he makes an interviewer feel like a patient, not a journalist getting to the bottom of things. Not necessarily a bad feeling, considering our topic.

With New York City stuck on Orange Alert, are we dedicating sufficient angst to the prospect of a terrorist-spawned smallpox epidemic? Has he, like the mayor, taken pre-emptive action against the disease, which kills one of every three people it infects, by receiving a vaccination that some experts say could kill one or two of each million people who get it and cause serious health complications in 50 others?

The doctor doesn't consider himself an alarmist: "I think there's a balance between naVve complacency and paranoia, and somewhere along that spectrum is the right place to be. The issue of how scared we should be is not a medical question; it's a question the intelligence community has to answer."

Granted, but there's no invitation to their office to share that intelligence. He caves.

"I would say it is very unlikely, very unlikely that we'll be subjected to a smallpox attack from what we know right now," he says. Mass vaccinations can wait, especially since accelerated research is under way to produce a safer vaccine. But he's adamant that hospitals need far more resources than their "ludicrously insufficient" share of the $6 billion in federal funds allocated in last summer's bioterrorism bill: "We're seeing more rhetoric than resources from politicians," he says. Politely. He stopped being an "us versus them" activist 20 years ago after a "we're not so good, they're not so bad" epiphany.

"We can make ourselves as ready as we can possibly be by vaccinating the first-responders in the health care community, and I would actually like to be vaccinated, personally," he adds. Because he fears smallpox? "No, because I want to be able to help. I volunteered to have the shot if they need me." Many first-responders are reluctant to be inoculated.

Dr. Redlener's link to volunteerism is framed on the office wall. He saved a three-decade-old recruiting poster for Vista because responding to it in 1971 altered his career and his personal life. He was doing his medical residency in Denver when he noticed it on a bulletin board and was stung by its message: "If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem."

An aspiring pediatric cardiologist, but a closet activist, he joined Vista and spent two years working in eastern Arkansas in the sixth-poorest county in the nation. There, he met another volunteer, Karen, married her, and still works with her at the Fund. They had four children, one of whom died in 1999 in a freakish snowboarding accident.

Dr. Redlener left Arkansas for Guatemala to do earthquake relief, and then, as a medical director for USA for Africa and Hands Across America, treated famine victims in the Sudan. That led to a meeting, in 1986, with Mr. Simon, who wanted to follow his contribution to the "We Are the World" famine relief concert with relief work closer to home. They took "a tour of the underbelly of New York," visiting at-risk children and cocaine-addicted babies, and in 1987 started the Children's Health Fund. The organization now serves 100,000 city children and is a blueprint for 15 programs across the country.

It all seems a logical leap for a boy who was denied admission to West Point and nearly started a magazine called "Dawn" while at Hofstra (the financing fell through at the eleventh hour) before knuckling under to his Mom's dream paging Dr. Freud of her oldest son becoming a doctor. Dr. Redlener's mother taught school; his father was a child psychologist; they were "more or less activist parents who expected their kids to be involved in issues of the day and take their share of social responsibility."

He did and does.