Dr. Margaret A. Hamburg

I discovered my true passion when I shifted out of the clinical setting and moved into public health. People used to sometimes ask me, “Don’t you feel like you’ve thrown away all that medical training? You’re not taking care of patients anymore.” And instead, I feel like I’ve just expanded my universe of patients, and I’m not just focused one-on-one, but really looking at the needs of whole populations. And when I was New York City’s Health Commissioner, for example, I had almost eight million patients! During the period when I was dealing with HIV/AIDS there was this extraordinary realization of our vulnerability to infectious diseases, and new diseases that we’d never seen before, and also the recognition that diseases like AIDS had many, many aspects that had nothing to do with medicine and medical care. And I really got interested in working at the intersection of medicine and social and legal and economic issues. I really came to understand that you couldn’t effectively address health simply by working within the medical system. When I was in New York City as Health Commissioner, I first got interested and concerned about the threat of biological weapons. I was Health Commissioner actually the first time that the World Trade Center was bombed, so the possibility of domestic terrorism was very real to me. I started thinking about domestic terrorism as it related to the subject closest to my heart— health, medicine, and infectious disease—and I immediately could identify all kinds of vulnerabilities to biological agents intentionally used to do harm. And so we actually began a program in New York City when I was there to prepare against the possible threat of bioterrorism, but we saw it as the extreme end of the spectrum of infectious disease threats that we faced. In the biological program here at NTI (Nuclear Threat Initiative) we are focused on a couple of critical activities. A portion of our efforts and resources are focused on prevention, and nonproliferation of biological weapons, and funding programs and trying to help develop policies to address those concerns. But given how hard it may be, ultimately, to prevent the use of a biological agent as a weapon, we also have to think about how can we recognize it and respond as quickly and as effectively as possible.