State Health Department names new epidemiologistby Martiga Lohn, Associated Press
St. Paul, Minn. — (AP) - Dr. Ruth Lynfield once got a smallpox vaccine in front of television cameras to quell the fears of health care workers who didn't want the shot.
She'll return to the spotlight more often after being named Minnesota's chief disease investigator on Thursday.
Her job as state epidemiologist is to oversee the handling of outbreaks and health emergencies and pinpoint health threats such as a feared flu pandemic.
An infectious disease specialist who joined the Minnesota Health Department nearly 10 years ago, Lynfield said her work on smallpox, the SARS virus and infectious cadaver tissue that killed several knee-surgery patients will help in her new role.
"I will be able to bring to the job a lot of experience from being in the trenches -- so, a good understanding of what is involved in outbreak investigation and what are the issues that we need to understand and to sort out," Lynfield said.
She's no stranger to the work -- she has been acting epidemiologist since March. The job was open after Dr. Harry Hull resigned last year, several months after being disciplined for allegedly screaming at an employee and squeezing her arm.
Dr. Michael Osterholm recruited Lynfield to the Minnesota agency in 1997 when he was state epidemiologist. He said her appointment was "a superb choice."
"She is a very well-rounded clinician who has a real understanding of the basic public health issues, plus she's a good leader and people really enjoy working with her," said Osterholm, who heads the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota.
Lynfield said her top goal is preparing for a pandemic, bioterror attack and yet-to-be-identified diseases. She also wants to throttle back on the use of antibiotics to slow the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
She said Minnesota is "more prepared than yesterday or last year or the year before" for a widespread public health disaster.
But there's always more to do -- such as preparing hospitals for a surge of patients, and working with an ethics panel to determine who would get scarce drugs and medical supplies in a catastrophe that swamped the system.
Lynfield said she also wants to examine the use of antibiotics in agriculture, which she said is leading to more human infections that resist treatment with last-resort drugs.
"Antibiotics are really precious resources," she said. "We need to have a judicious approach to using them so that we don't lose them."
Minnesota Health Commissioner Dianne Mandernach has been sharply criticized in recent weeks for delaying the release of data about a rare cancer among Iron Range miners, but Lynfield wouldn't address that issue directly. She said she's never had a problem expressing scientific opinions at the agency, and doesn't expect to.
Lynfield grew up in the suburbs of New York and went to medical school in New York. She is a specialist in infectious diseases among children and has published research on infectious diseases, antibiotic resistance and smallpox.
Her jobs at the Minnesota Health Department include working as a medical epidemiologist and managing the emerging infections unit.
She got the smallpox shot in 2003, when fears about a bioterror attack were high but some worried about the vaccine's side effects.
At the time, Lynfield said health workers needed to prepare for an outbreak, which was more plausible than ever after the anthrax attacks of 2001.
(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)
- All Things Considered, 07/12/2007, 5:24 p.m.