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August 5, 2009

Danger Junkies

chrissy ann rimoin

Anne Rimoin

Photo Credit: Andrew Hetherington

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Anne Rimoin, 39, founder of Congo BioMed, a nonprofit that promotes biomedical research in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and assistant professor of epidemiology at UCLA

WHAT I DO: Study emerging diseases, especially ones that move from animals to humans, like monkeypox. I split my time between Los Angeles, where I teach college classes, and the Congo, where I conduct surveillance of people in the jungle who are eating animals that might carry the monkeypox virus, like squirrels, monkeys, or rodents. By studying diseases that cross species, such as the swine flu, we can learn how to prevent a pandemic, or worse: Monkeypox — a cousin of smallpox, with similar symptoms — is one of the most likely agents of bioterrorism.

HOW I GOT THE GIG: After college, I joined the Peace Corps in West Africa, where I helped tackle Guinea worm disease. People were getting infected through drinking water; they'd unwittingly gulp some larvae, then later would get blisters on their skin that would hatch worms. Yes, worms could come out of their faces, legs, feet. I learned how you could make a huge impact on health with a simple intervention — in this case, just having people filter their water by pouring it through a cloth. It was a perfect introduction to public health; I decided to go on to get a master's and then a Ph.D.

WHY THE CONGO? It's a hotbed of emerging diseases — Ebola was born here, along with some of the first cases of HIV. I came to work on a malaria study in 2002, but when I started looking into monkeypox, I realized it was a real problem. Yet no one was talking about it; everyone thought it would go away. In 2004, I received a supplemental grant from the National Institutes of Health to study it. A few years later, I started a nonprofit to promote biomedical research, training, and sustainable health programs.

MAJOR MISHAP: Once, we needed to take blood samples from people in a rural village, but a rumor had spread that we wanted to give the blood to white Europeans — so they could drink it to stay young. Of course, I understand that it's strange for villagers when we swoop in and ask for blood. But days can be spent trying to explain that you're not a vampire.

WORST PART OF THE JOB: There's so much work to be done — there's always an unmet need. Oh, and the time I got malaria.

BEST PART: The potential to save millions of lives.

To donate time or money to Lion Guardians or Congo BioMed, go to lionguardians.org or congobiomed.org.

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