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Going Viral: Israeli Doctor Fights Disease around the World

Going Viral: Israeli Doctor Fights Disease around the World

August 3, 2008

Medical Research, Negev Development & Community Programs

He doesn’t wear a tuxedo, pack a Beretta or drive an Aston Martin, but Dr. Michael Alkan is Israel’s James Bond of medicine.

He might turn up in Botswana to teach local doctors how to combat infectious diseases. Or he might spend a month in Ecuador setting up a hospital. Or he’ll fly to Tajikistan with a mission to update the nation’s medical curriculum.

Like the fictional secret agent, Alkan is one cool customer. He likes to confront danger, especially if it’s viral or bacterial.

A professor emeritus at Israel’s Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Alkan is at an age when retirement to a beachfront hideaway might make sense. It’s not an option. With AIDS, bird flu and global warming wreaking havoc, the world needs his expertise more than ever.

Alkan was in the Bay Area last week raising funds for Ben-Gurion University. His dedication to the institution goes way back: The Jerusalem native was a founder of BGU’s medical school back in 1974.

“At the opening ceremony, there were all these dignitaries,” he recalls. “Ted Kennedy. Golda Meir. There was a big cloth draped in the back, and we knew behind it there was nothing but desert.”

That desert is still there, but the Beersheva university has grown since then, from 2,000 students to 16,000, and is now a world-class center for medical, engineering and agricultural science.

For Alkan, the BGU hospital provided a forum for his work in fighting infectious diseases. Why that specialty? Alkan says he wanted to work in a field in which patients actually recover.

Of course, within a few years of that decision, the HIV/AIDS epidemic hit. In the early ’80s, none of his patients recovered.

As Africa reeled from its own AIDS crisis, Alkan spent time in Botswana, Nigeria and other countries helping their health care systems cope. “In the last four years there has been a quiet revolution in the care of AIDS patients in Africa,” he says. “The world woke up. Now there is money from the United States, the World Health Organization and foundations.”

The developing world isn’t Alkan’s sole focus. Within 48 hours of Hurricane Katrina, the doctor had assembled a team of BGU med students and was on his way to New Orleans.

“When we got there, we started working right away, taking over from doctors who were exhausted,” he remembers. “We did triage in a church. We vaccinated against hepatitus and tetanus.”

Alkan’s presence in Louisiana –– and everywhere else he has visited –– might have helped vaccinate against something else: anti-Israel bias.

“People were stunned by the fact that we came from Israel,” he says. “They would say, ‘You came all the way from the Holy Land to help us?’ They were in tears. Yes, [my job] is usually being an ambassador for Israel.”

Sometimes he plays that role even within Israel. As Ethiopian Jews came to Israel over the last three decades, Alkan found himself drawn to this new community.

“There is a kind of street-smartness hidden under a subtle way of being very subdued and very polite,” he says of the Ethiopians. “You can almost hear the wheels in the brain turning. Soon I had so many friends among them, it was natural that they asked if I could help.”

Under the auspices of the Israeli government, Alkan has traveled to Ethiopia three times, and he will return again this fall to teach courses in infectious diseases.

On one of those previous trips, he chaperoned a group of young Ethiopian Israelis returning to their homeland for the first time. “One said to me, ‘I left Ethiopia in the dark and I’m coming back in broad daylight,'” he recalls.

Married for nearly 40 years, Alkan has three grown children and one grandchild. He spends as much time with them as possible, but it’s not much. His commitments to BGU and the world medical community take precedence.

“In August I go to Kenya to teach a course on AIDS prevention,” he says, “then Ethiopia, then Nepal.”

And, he adds, “there is some time in between not filled yet.”