Outspoken A Conversation With Sanjay Gupta

Sunday, May 3, 2009

He was going to be President Obama's pick for U.S. surgeon general, the physician who would explain medical crises and mend the nation's bad health habits. But Dr. Gupta opted not to answer the page to Washington and to stay on in his current roles as a neurosurgeon and CNN reporter. Now, however, with swine flu upon us, there he is, on television, calmly explaining this crisis.

So maybe, in a sense, he took the job after all? While on assignment in Mexico, he spoke by phone with Outlook's Rachel Dry about why we shouldn't blame the pigs, how he might have to be quarantined when he gets home and the difficulty of talking pandemic without causing panic. Excerpts:

Many of the top public-health official jobs in this administration aren't filled yet, including the job you might have taken as surgeon general. It seems as though you basically are acting as our nation's surgeon general.

I think in some ways you're right. And I used to think about that in some ways before the possibility of my being surgeon general even came up. The media has a very unique role, I think, in situations like this. We have to report the news, obviously, but there is a public health role as well, especially for someone like me who is a doctor on the ground here. So that is a lot of what the surgeon general does in situations like this, and with media, we reach a lot of people very quickly, so there is a lot of overlap.

The vice president said in a television interview that he advised his family not to fly anywhere, not just to Mexico. What precautions should people be taking?

I think that most people who have been talking about this from the CDC have been pretty clear: If you're sick and if someone in your family is sick, you shouldn't fly. Now, if you're healthy, there are no specific restrictions. And in fact, the air on airplanes -- there have been a lot of studies and a lot of reporting on this -- is really not any more dangerous than the air anywhere else. People just need to exercise a lot of preventive precaution, more than ever before. This virus can spread pretty easily from inanimate surfaces to your eyes, your nose, your mouth. So I carry hand sanitizer with me and just wash my hands basically every time I think about it.

More cases continue to be reported and schools continue to close, but fatalities, luckily, so far seem limited. Can people relax?

We don't know what the severity of the disease is going to be ultimately, but the indicators now both in Mexico and the U.S. really have shown that in a lot of people it can be a mild illness. It can be like the seasonal flu, so you have a couple miserable days and you get over it.

If I did get swine flu and had those couple miserable days, would I then be better off during a more serious outbreak?

Yeah, you do develop some immunity to swine flu. I mean we're developing immunity every moment of our lives. And that's part of what's concerning about this for public health officials. When you have a brand new virus like this, we have no immunity to it so if it's something that's very virulent, we just can't fight it off naturally.

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