An Interview with... Drs. Jerry and Nancy Jaax


Although best known for helping to stop the spread of an Ebola virus outbreak in a laboratory in Reston, Va., as recounted in The Hot Zone by Richard Preston, retired U.S. Army colonels Jerry and Nancy Jaax have returned to Kansas State University, where they met, married, and earned their veterinary degrees. Both are internationally recognized experts on infectious diseases and high-hazard chemical and biological agents.

What's the most exciting change you've seen in veterinary medicine?

Jerry and Nancy: The emergence of veterinarians in public health and national security. People such as Col. David L. Huxsoll, former commander, U.S. Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Disease (USAMRIID); Dr. Frederick A. Murphy, former head of the special pathogens branch of the CDC; Col. David R. Franz, vice president of the Midwest Research Institute and former USAMRIID commander; Rear Adm. Robert Whitney, former acting surgeon general of the United States, and many other national and international leaders in public health.

In the hot zone. Cols. Jaax in a level four biosafety laboratory at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases in 1998.

Who was your most memorable patient and why?

Nancy: Little Rex, a sentry dog in Germany at a tactical nuclear weapons depot who was absolutely fearless. He was 45 pounds of heart and teeth and embodied the concept "Attitude is everything."

Jerry: During the Reston Ebola outbreak, a monkey we suspected of being infected with Ebola virus got out of its cage in the quarantine facility. Several of us spent the better part of a day trying to catch it. When we talk about the Reston incident, we compare the frustration of that day with the Hollywood version in the movie "Outbreak," in which an infected monkey was coaxed from a tree and captured within minutes. It is a great example of reality vs. Hollywood.

What was the overall atmosphere at the Reston lab during the outbreak?

Jerry and Nancy: Because we were dealing with something new, we were forced to improvise and execute a plan on the fly. In a week's time, our team's initial excitement, tension, and uncertainty gave way to exhaustion.

Who inspired you most in your career and why?

Jerry and Nancy: We both think that the other influenced our careers the most. Every career move or decision we have made was made as a team. The choices made jointly were certainly different from those that we would have made independently. Had we not gotten married in vet school, it is highly likely that both of our careers would have taken completely different paths.

What was the best professional advice you ever received?

Jerry and Nancy: In 1978, we were preparing to leave the Army and go into private practice. Brigadier General Thomas Murnane, chief of the Army Veterinary Corps, advised us to consider postgraduate residencies in pathology and lab animal medicine at the USAMRIID at Ft. Detrick, Md.

What would you advise a new graduate?

Jerry and Nancy: Keep your options open as far as career paths.You can never predict where you will be or what will happen. It is amazing how many veterinarians we know who have ended up in careers that are totally different from what they expected during veterinary school.

Are you a cat person or a dog person?

Jerry: Both. Nancy: Dog. We have had many great (and some not so great) dogs and cats over the years and have been involved in breeding both dogs and cats. We've had Siamese, Himalayan, Maine coon, and yellow barn cats; a keeshond; Irish setters; an English setter; Airedales; Bouvier des Flandres; and boxers. It wouldn't be home without at least one dog and cat around.

What book would you recommend and why?

Nancy: Dragonfly in Amber by Diana Gabaldon. I love historical fiction. My work is intense and technical, and I read fiction for relaxation and enjoyment.

Jerry: Germs: Biological Weapons and America's Secret War by Judith Miller and two other reporters at the TheNew York Times. It's a fascinating review of the history of offensive biowarfare programs. Germs gives a chilling perspective of the potential for proliferation of biological agents from old offensive biowarfare programs active during the cold war. It brings home why we are so concerned about bioterrorism now.

What is your favorite film and why?

Jerry: The Man with Two Brains, a comedy about a renowned brain surgeon (Steve Martin) with spouse problems. It really pokes fun at the medical profession in general, with much of it revolving around egos and the infallibility of doctors. I think this issue applies to all medical professionals, including veterinarians. We can all take ourselves too seriously at times.

What part of your work do you enjoy most?

Jerry and Nancy: Because of the visibility we received from the book The Hot Zone, we have had the opportunity to speak to many people about the roles of veterinarians in public health, infectious disease, bioterrorism, and national defense. We repeatedly find that even within our own profession, there is limited awareness and appreciation of the important contributions of veterinarians in many of these critical areas.

What do you consider the greatest threat to the profession?

Jerry and Nancy: Salaries that are not competitive with those of other healthcare professionals. Salary disparity has the potential to eventually compromise the profession's ability to attract high-quality applicants to schools.

Which animal health needs are currently unmet?

Jerry and Nancy: Countermeasures for diseases of animal and public health significance, especially those diseases that could be used for biowarfare, bioterrorism, or agroterrorism.

What direction should future research on bioterrorism agents take?

Jerry and Nancy: If the answer to this were easy, we would not be so concerned. Biotechnology is in many ways our most important asset in developing countermeasures (e.g. vaccines, treatments, detectors, novel immunity enhancements, decontamination) to bioterrorism. But biotechnology can be misused to enhance the weapons potential of existing microbes or to create new classes of weapons that we cannot readily counter. Ironically, rapid advances in biotechnology pose perhaps our greatest biodefense challenges and are among our best tools to counter existing and emerging potential threats.

Does the prospect of a bioterrorist attack ever keep you awake at night?

Jerry and Nancy: Well, the bioterrorist genie is out of the bottle, and we feel that it is virtually inevitable that there will be additional bioterrorist attacks in this country targeting either people or our agricultural or economic infrastructure. However, we also believe that individual health risk is exceptionally low. On the issue of worrying about our personal safety, we sleep just fine.

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