Teamwork that knows no borders

Tufts veterinarian led Mideast disease project

By Pamela H. Sacks

SUNDAY TELEGRAM

2003

In the days after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Dr. George Saperstein received phone calls and e-mail messages from Arabs and Jews whose homelands were Egypt, Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority.

“They were personal expressions of sorrow and sympathy,” said Dr. Saperstein, a livestock veterinarian on staff at the Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine in Grafton.

Dr. Saperstein was not particularly surprised that colleagues who had been working with him — and with each other — on disease control in animals would think of him at that catastrophic time.

“Many of them had taken me into their homes and offered me wonderful hospitality,” Dr. Saperstein said the other day in his office at Tufts Wildlife Clinic. “Although we didn’t discuss politics, I was sympathetic to their problems.”

For more than three years, Dr. Saperstein, 52, was both veterinarian and diplomat as he coordinated a $2.3 million project to improve the diagnosis and control of disease in Mideast animals. Succeeding meant bringing together people whose homelands have been in conflict for decades.

Dr. Saperstein had never traveled to the region before becoming involved in the project, which was funded by the United States Agency for International Development. Over time, he visited the three countries and the Palestinian territories, examining laboratories and farms, hashing out research and clinical problems and attending meetings called to share information and set future plans.

He has come away with an understanding that the problems in the Mideast are “not black and white, but gray,” he said. Yet, he also holds a deep-seated conviction that people can bridge political and religious differences by working together to solve common problems.

“It was a very emotional experience for me,” Dr. Saperstein said. “We’d break bread together. We’d laugh together. When I arrived the Arabs would greet me and embrace me. On the plane on the way home, I’d be on a high.”

In 1997, Tufts Veterinary School won a grant under the Middle East Regional Cooperative Program to work with Israel and the three Arab entities to prevent foot-and-mouth disease and brucellosis and improve the neonatal health of sheep and goats.

“Here, we can control animal movements across our borders by requiring health certificates and using quarantine,” Dr. Saperstein explained. “When animals go to slaughter, we have the opportunity to test them.”

In the Mideast, the Bedouins, who are nomadic, control much of the livestock. They freely cross borders to go where the environment is most favorable.

“Diseases get a free piggyback ride on hosts,” Dr. Saperstein said, “and there is quite a lot of ritual slaughter done by the common man.”

Most countries are inefficient in controlling livestock disease, and it is ineffective to introduce strict measures in one or two countries but not in others.

“Control of animal disease is a global issue,” he said.

Foot-and-mouth disease is highly contagious among animals and severely diminishes the productivity of its victims. Brucellosis can be spread from animal to human, where it is manifested as undulant fever, a bacterial infection that causes debilitating recurrent fever and arthritis. People who work with animals, butchering or administering the live vaccine against brucellosis, are vulnerable to contracting the disease.

Dr. Saperstein became involved in the Mideast project in 1999, when he assumed the job of principal investigator for a colleague who fell ill. One thorny issue already had been solved. The funding was to be divided between the four Mideast entities. The United States does not recognize the Palestinian Authority, so Tufts had to find an agency that would act as middleman. Eventually, an agreement was drawn up with the nonprofit group CARE, which in turn signed a contract with Palestinian officials.

Dr. Saperstein’s introduction to his Mideast colleagues was a stream of e-mail arguing over where the project’s second annual meeting would be held.

“Some said Jordan, and others said Egypt,” he remembered.

He looked up the minutes of the previous meeting, which had been held in Ramallah in the Palestinian Authority, and found that participants had agreed on Egypt.

When Dr. Saperstein arrived, his hosts were unfailingly warm and welcoming. For his part, Dr. Saperstein had learned Arab customs so that he would act properly and courteously. But the unhappiness about the decision to meet in Egypt was palpable.

“I didn’t consider the politics of administering the work, and I wasn’t astute enough to understand the politics behind decision making in this region,” Dr. Saperstein reflected. “The bureaucracy in these countries is very different from ours. The motivating forces are very different.”

Still, his co-principal investigators and the chief veterinarians from Egypt, Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority sat down and wrote grant applications together, a difficult joint task under the best of circumstances. They did not necessarily speak each other’s languages, but they all spoke English.

Dr. Saperstein, who is thoughtful and soft-spoken, derives obvious satisfaction talking about the cooperation that evolved. They published scientific papers together, improved the safety and effectiveness of the brucellosis vaccine and developed protocols for disease detection and control across borders.

When foot-and-mouth disease broke out in Jordan in 1999, veterinarians transported samples to the Kimron Veterinary Institute in Israel, where the virus was quickly identified, and Jordanians were able to take steps to shorten the outbreak.

Israelis, whose system of disease control is more advanced, trained Palestinians and Jordanians in diagnostic techniques at no cost.

Dr. Saperstein and the chief veterinarians formed a Regional Oversight Committee, which quickly acquired the moniker “the ROC.”

“It became an entity with its own life,” Dr. Saperstein said with a laugh. “That group feels it now has the ultimate decision-making ability on veterinary issues.”

The ROC has even proved useful politically. When mad cow disease surfaced in Israel a year ago, the media went to the chief veterinarian and asked, “What are you doing to protect Israelis? What are you doing to protect Palestinians?”

“The answer was, `The same thing,’ ” Dr. Saperstein said. “The ROC keeps people meeting, regardless of politics.”

After the start of the second Intifada in the fall of 2000, the decision was made to hold the project’s third annual meeting in Istanbul, Turkey, a neutral location.

“It took six months to pull it off, but everyone turned up,” Dr. Saperstein said.

At meetings and in discussions having to do with the task at hand, there was no reason to talk politics, Dr. Saperstein said, and he did not seek it out. Occasionally, the subject came up in private. He said he learned to be careful to “express proper emotions and understanding without taking sides.”

Yet, the realities of life in the Mideast could not be ignored.

During the five-year project, which ended in December, those involved kept publicity to a minimum. Top veterinarians who were working together and gathering for meetings could have been targets for terrorists.

Dr. Saperstein traveled to the Mideast half a dozen times and never worried about his safety until last fall when he was in Jordan to attend a meeting of the ROC. A few weeks earlier, an officer of USAID had been shot and killed in Amman, Jordan.

Dr. Saperstein is now writing his final project report.

“I’m trying to manage 40 people from four countries, two of them in conflict, from halfway around the world,” he said. “The goal is to see that the work continues.”

In his view, the project’s overarching success is the cooperative atmosphere that developed. He recalled watching an Israeli, Menachem Benai, and an Egyptian, Samira Eigibaly, come together over their common interest — control of brucellosis. Many others formed similar bonds.

“They were arm and arm, laughing, visiting each other in their homes,” he said.

Dr. Saperstein, too, made many friends. He receives greeting cards for an array of holidays, from Christians, Muslims and Jews.

“It was very rewarding,” he said. “I felt I was using veterinary medicine, which I love, to make peace in the world.”