Allison Kavey and Her Mom Were Writing a Book on Pandemics When This One Started

Professor Allison B. Kavey, her mother, Rae-Ellen Kavey, M.D., and their book, "Viral Pandemics."

By Beth Harpaz

Professor Allison B. Kavey (GC/John Jay, History) and her mother, Rae-Ellen Kavey, M.D., first started talking about collaborating on a book about the history of pandemics in 2015. They were finishing the manuscript a year ago when a new virus surfaced in China. Their editors agreed that the book had to include it.

“I wrote the chapter about COVID between the beginning of February and the end of March with an epilogue written at the end of June,” recalled Rae-Ellen Kavey, who in addition to being a physician holds a master’s degree in public health. “Writing that chapter as the story evolved from an outbreak in China to a rapidly expanding global pandemic was both exhilarating and terrifying. Because I was so involved in documenting the narrative, I think I was one of the earliest civilians to appreciate that a true pandemic was already underway in early February. But anyone who is involved with epidemics knew that another global pandemic was inevitable.”

OK, but did they know enough to stock up on toilet paper? “I have been a step ahead in recognizing things like the recommendation for masks,” Rae-Ellen Kavey said. “But toilet paper? I still don’t know why there was such a run on toilet paper!” 

In addition to COVID-19, the book, Viral Pandemics: From Smallpox to COVID-19, covers smallpox, yellow fever, polio, HIV/AIDS, West Nile virus, SARS, Zika, and Ebola. Each virus is described from its detection in the 20th century to its explosion. Allison Kavey, who holds a Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins in the history of medicine, provides a historical perspective at the end of each chapter. But she insists that her mother is “the real superstar” of their collaboration: “My contribution was introducing her to the history of medicine as a field and getting her to teach as an adjunct at John Jay, where her course on the history of epidemics has been extremely successful. She wrote all the virology sections and I just read them over, checked the history, and added sections on the history of each virus.”

They also “open each chapter with a short personal essay to give readers the insight that no matter where you live, no matter what your circumstances, we are all living with ongoing risk for global disease outbreaks,” Rae-Ellen Kavey says.

Dr. Kavey has worked as a pediatric cardiologist at top hospitals, chaired Northwestern Children's Hospital in Chicago, and developed childhood obesity prevention guidelines at the National Institutes of Health under President Obama. She retired from clinical practice in 2014, shortly before the Ebola pandemic took off. That got her interested in pandemics: “I realized that although viruses were the cause of all global pandemics since the 1800s, there were no texts about it,” she said. 

In summarizing the book’s findings, Allison Kavey points out that the history of viruses is essentially the history of public health. A turning point in our understanding of infection and contagion was the identification of bacteria as the cause of tuberculosis in 1882. “All of a sudden our public health focus shifted from focusing on vectors (the things that transmit viruses) to the germ itself,” she said. That led to a focus on vaccinations as the best way to prevent outbreaks. But vaccines are not always easy to develop, so “older public health efforts remain an important part of virus combat,” she said. “If you can limit the means of transmission through things like mask wearing, hand washing, and limited social interaction, you can keep case numbers lower while scientists get the chance to work on the vaccine puzzle.”

The book chronicles the astonishing success of some past vaccination campaigns, with polio nearly vanquished worldwide and smallpox wiped out altogether. In 1947, after three people died from smallpox in New York, 5 million people were vaccinated in just a few weeks. So how does the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine campaign compare so far? 

“New York is not doing a terrible job and, in my opinion, the logistics are more difficult than they were in 1947,” Allison Kavey said. “Of course, it is amazing that 5 million people were vaccinated then in the first two weeks, but there was a widely available vaccine; there had not been decades of irresponsible and inaccurate anti-vaccination campaigns; and the mayor and commissioner of health were exceptionally proactive and mandated vaccinations. There are 19.4 million people in New York State right now. The governor and the mayor are in a constant struggle, and the vaccine was just approved for use in December. It requires two doses, is in short supply, and is difficult to manage. We will get this done, but my guess is that it will not be fully accomplished until late next fall.”

More About Professor Allison B. Kavey

Allison Kavey is the director of John Jay’s Humanities and Justice program, where she regularly teaches the history of medicine. She also teaches at The Graduate Center, most recently a course on early modern print history and in the fall of 2021, a class for the Biography and Memory master’s program on the dual nature of biography and autobiography in medicine using case histories and patient autobiographies. She originally wanted to become a veterinarian, but she was “beguiled by the humanities and never looked back.” 

Why teach at CUNY? She responds by recounting the answer she gave in her interview for the job at John Jay: “I was the beneficiary of a truly astonishingly good public education, and I want to give that opportunity to every single student I can. CUNY students keep me believing the world can be a better place: They are motivated, idealistic, and they believe so much in the importance of a college degree.  Where could I better serve?” 

Beth Harpaz is the editor of SUM. Follow her on Twitter at @literarydj.

Published by the Office of Communications and Marketing

Submitted on: JAN 27, 2021

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