Janet Ginsburg receives microbiology communications award

April 16, 2001

Washington, D.C. - April 16, 2001 - Janet Ginsburg, special correspondent for BusinessWeek, has been named the recipient of the 2001 American Society for Microbiology (ASM) Public Communications Award. Her winning entry "Bio Invasion," an article on the potential threats of foreign disease that appeared September 11, 2000, examines the dangers when deadly pathogens, expanded global trade and travel are mixed with limited inspection and surveillance. Halting trade and threatening public health, these pathogens have caused billions of dollars in damage and cost hundreds of human lives each year.

The annual award carries an honorarium of $2,500 plus expenses to attend ASM's General Meeting in Orlando May 20-May 24, 2001. It recognizes outstanding achievement in increasing public awareness, knowledge, and understanding of microbiology. Judging this year's competition were Joe Neel of National Public Radio, Sally Squires of the Washington Post and Carol Ezzell of Scientific American.

Janet's interest in foreign animal disease threats was first sparked by a short wire piece in 1997 about the discovery of thumbnail size African ticks discovered on an ailing African tortoise in Florida. The ticks were vectors of heartwater, an incurable ruminant disease native to Africa.

She interviewed heartwater expert Michael Burridge whose research showed that the mortality for North American livestock and wild herds could range from 40% to 100%, depending on species, if the disease were to become established here. For the next few years, Ginsburg continued to speak to Burridge periodically for updates. But it wasn't until the ticks actually tested positive for the presence of the heartwater bacteria in late 1999 that the story began to gain momentum.

Ginsburg was stunned to learn that the ticks had been sent to a lab in Zimbabwe for testing, which took five months. The U.S. Department of Agriculture facility at Plum Island, N.Y. - the only U.S. lab specializing in foreign animal diseases - had neither the set-up nor staff to do the job. Further exacerbating this situation was a report on the dire state of the USDA lab complex in Ames, Iowa and the realization that the U.S. had only a few hundred inspectors to handle nearly 40 million animals. And, since animal pathogens require little work to become weaponized, the CIA was also raising concerns about agroterrorism.

Ginsburg concluded by noting that there have been several near-miss scares with diseases such as heartwater and screw worm, but so far the U.S. has escaped disaster. Unfortunately, the rest of the world hasn't been so lucky. Ginsburg sites several recent examples in Asia, Europe and Mexico, resulting in the slaughter of millions of cows, pigs and poultry, as well as trade sanctions. Her article emphasizes that it's not just known scourges, but emerging diseases that have scientists worried and have served as a wake up call to the world.

Ginsburg is based in Chicago, primarily covering science and technology for BusinessWeek. A graduate of Indiana University, her background includes work in broadcast as well as print. She has traveled from Poland to Cuba for documentary projects for Discovery, National Geographic and TBS. In addition to writing for newspapers and magazines, she created and launched a nationally syndicated children's publication called curiocity, which was sold to Thompson Media. She has also curated several nationally touring art exhibitions and produced a major book based on one of the largest corporate photography collections in the world for ABN AMRO/ LaSalle National Bank in Chicago. She pursues her deep interests in environmental issues by working as a volunteer Streamleader, collecting data on rivers near her home, for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and by writing an educational publication ("City Trees") on urban tree care for the City of Chicago.

Ellen Licking of BusinessWeek was and editorial contributor to the award-winning article. Runner-up in this year's competition is Daniel Haney of the Associated Press for his story, "Eliminating Syphilis," about the federal plan to wipe out syphilis.
The American Society for Microbiology is the largest single life science society, with 42,000 members worldwide who work as scientists, teachers, physicians, and health professionals. Its mission is to promote research and research training in the microbiological sciences and to assist communication between scientists, policymakers, and the public to improve health, the environment, and economic well being.

American Society for Microbiology

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