Avian influenza—it’s strictly for the birds
A Yale alumnus who investigates animal diseases for the UN believes a human pandemic is unlikely.
Sitting in his Rome office, gazing at cypress trees and terra cotta rooftops, Juan Lubroth, D.V.M., M.Phil. ’92, Ph.D. ’95, sighs when he hears the words “avian influenza pandemic”—not because he foresees the demise of the human race in a terrifying display of sickness and death, but because he believes that such concerns currently have little merit.
“After over two years of looking at avian influenza, I do not see an imminent pandemic occurring in humans. Yes, we have had a little over 100 deaths in humans attributed to this virus, but this pales in comparison with deaths from other pathogens in humans, such as HIV, tuberculosis and childhood diarrhea,” Lubroth said during an interview last spring. And he should know. As the senior officer and head of the Emergency Prevention System (EMPRES) livestock component at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations since 2002, Lubroth and his team have contained numerous avian influenza outbreaks. From their analysis of the viral sequence, they don’t believe we are any closer to a human pandemic.
“Avian influenza needs to be put into perspective. Today, I have an epidemic in poultry, and people’s livelihoods and source of protein are at stake. That is my battle right now—in poultry,” Lubroth said. To shore up this form of food security, he and his team are trying to teach poultry handlers how to improve their hygienic practices in order to reduce the spread of avian influenza among chickens and, in turn, among humans. These responsibilities fall under Lubroth’s mandate to track the international animal trade and ensure that food products are safe and free from such infectious agents as those that cause foot-and-mouth disease, swine fever, Rift Valley fever and avian influenza, among others. Lubroth jokes that he lives in Alitalia—Italy’s national airline—given his frequent travels to Thailand, Egypt, Turkey, Vietnam and China.
As a veterinarian, Lubroth is the self-described “black sheep” in a family of architects—his father, grandfather, one of his two brothers, his sister, an uncle and a cousin are all architects. Even his only child, 28-year-old Gregorio, is in his third year at the Yale School of Architecture master’s program. Yet during his childhood in Madrid, Lubroth found himself drawn to a different calling. His family’s large verdant garden, full of animals, formed a pastoral oasis amidst the high-rises of the bustling city. Born the youngest of four children in 1957, it fell to him to clean up after the family’s dogs, cats, chickens and ducks. Lubroth demonstrated an aptitude for caring for animals, and when he was 12 he began volunteering at a local veterinary clinic. As he matured, Lubroth increasingly appreciated the relationship between human health and animal health, and he felt that investigating that link represented an ideal strategy for improving the lives of individuals in developing countries.
To further his education and escape the political unrest in Spain during the transition from the dictatorship of Francisco Franco to democratic rule, Lubroth accepted a scholarship at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash., where he studied biology and played on the college’s soccer team. At the University of Georgia he earned a master’s degree in medical microbiology and worked as a wildlife biologist. While there he met his wife of 24 years, Adriana, a native of Colombia, at a concert by the B-52’s. As he puts it, Lubroth married both Adriana and her young son, Gregorio. Lubroth stayed on at the university to earn his veterinary degree, fulfilling a longtime dream.
Since then, Lubroth’s professional pursuits have led him far and wide: to New York to study foreign animal diseases, to Mexico City to prevent foot-and-mouth disease and to Brazil for more studies of foot-and-mouth. Before his appointment to EMPRES, which is based in Rome, Lubroth headed the Reagents and Vaccine Section and Diagnostic Services Section at the Plum Island Animal Disease Center of the U.S. Department of Agriculture in New York. During his travels and many jobs, Lubroth picked up a second master’s degree along with a Ph.D. from Yale’s Department of Epidemiology and Public Health, where he focused his interests in infectious diseases, specifically foot-and-mouth disease.
Through it all, Lubroth’s mission has remained the same: “It is my passion to work with developing countries to help with their strife by providing better health, both in animals and in humans.” Although his nonstop travel limits his time with his wife and prevents him from weeding through the stacks of articles and files cluttering his office, Lubroth is delighted with his position. “I feel that there is only one medicine, there is only one health. Whether it is environmental or wildlife or livestock, we are dealing with the same world,” he said.