By Scott Holleran
You’ve probably seen Dr. Amesh Adalja on Fox News, CNN, MSNBC or C-SPAN. He’s the one delivering frank, fast analysis of monkeypox or Covid. Pittsburgh’s most prominent epidemiologist, at the forefront of the discussion during the recent pandemic, lives in the South Side Slopes. His work brings him around the world, though, including trips to Taiwan, the United Kingdom, Indonesia and Haiti, where he treated patients after the 2010 earthquake.
When asked by a reporter about the president’s recent statement that the Covid pandemic is over, Adalja said that, while that’s partly true, the virus will probably continue as a leading cause of death for the “next couple of years” before “moderating to around flu level.”
“Some people think that it has to be erased” from the list of leading causes of U.S. deaths for the pandemic to be over. “It’s not going to be. That’s fantastic thinking.”
Adalja, 46, who grew up in Butler, completed two fellowships at the University of Pittsburgh — one in infectious disease and one in critical care medicine. He also finished a combined residency in internal medicine and emergency medicine at Allegheny General Hospital. He is an adjunct assistant professor at Pitt, Johns Hopkins and Carnegie Mellon University, where he also earned his bachelor’s degree in industrial management. He received his M.D. from the American University of the Caribbean School of Medicine.
The infectious disease doctor who practices medicine at hospitals in Butler and Pittsburgh has also been a patient. While visiting his parents’ native India as a boy, he drank contaminated water out of a hose. Adalja remembers his mom looking over and screaming, “Noooo! Put it down!”
“I was so used to doing that at home,” he says with a shrug.
Another time, Adalja, an avid skateboarder, needed emergency surgery after attempting a trick at the former Shady Skates skatepark in Point Breeze. “I came down all wrong. I was wearing high-tops — they didn’t give my ankle any room — so [my ankle] broke.
“I remember the intense pain,” Adalja recalls, adding that he also felt lightheaded. “I asked my friend who was with me for the water jug we were drinking out of and just dumped it on my head as I was laying there.”
Adalja says the tibial fracture required surgery to add screws and a plate while it healed. The accident did not dissuade Adalja, who still skateboards.
Besides skateboarding — and a habit of driving fast (Adalja admits to being cited for several traffic violations), he insists he’s not a thrill seeker. In his private time, Adalja, who was educated in Butler’s Catholic schools, reads and studies philosophy and writes and self-publishes the blog Tracking Zebra.
Today, he gauges risk as a senior scholar at Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. Asked to name the worst biological threat to civilization, he answers without hesitation: “Russia.”
“We’ve seen [Russia’s] willingness to use things like polonium and Novichok nerve agents,” he says. “We’ve seen Vladimir Putin disavow the fact that they had an outbreak after an accidental release of anthrax.”
As the first-born child of doctors who treated U.S. military veterans, Dr. Adalja witnessed and observed the long-term impact of government-controlled healthcare early in his life. “I was aware that there were lots of bureaucracy problems that my mom was always dealing with,” he recalls, citing his mother’s work with HIV and pulmonary patients. “I saw [her] struggle to be innovative. I could see the frustration with poor performance.”
Adalja cites Pittsburgh’s institutions as integral to his own growth and progress. Visiting Buhl Planetarium was one of his first impressions of the city, he says.
“It was pretty cool to be able to see all of that, to hear about space, and to be at a place where they had those big telescopes [and] to think that they were talking about space. They were engaging with these really abstract ideas and it was just cool to be in the atmosphere there,” he says.
“I remember it being dark and walking around hearing these authoritative voices talking about science. That, I think, is probably what stuck with me.”
Adalja’s approach to life in the context of today’s multiple threats of bioterrorism and infectious disease can be summed up by an excerpt from what he describes as a favorite children’s book, “The Value of Believing in Yourself,” by Steve Pileggi and Spencer Johnson. The picture book “retells the story of Louis Pasteur, whose unwavering belief in the concept of germs led to a cure for rabies.”
“Sometimes, Louis became sad,” the story goes, “then, he listened to himself and laughed and went back to work.”
Scott Holleran recently won the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania’s Golden Quill Award for Best Sports Journalism for his retrospective on Roberto Clemente. Holleran is currently writing his first novel.