Campus News

Full circle: Quest to eradicate rabies takes prof from China and back again

From his humble beginnings as a barefoot doctor in China to his relentless pursuit of an education to prepare him for a career in rabies research, Dr. Zhen Fu has dedicated his life to battling rabies in the realm of public health.

Now, called upon to share his expertise with China, India and South Korea, Fu looks into the future and predicts a success that will bring him full circle.

“In another 10 to 15 years, rabies should be brought under control in China,” he said.

At 15, Fu underwent one year of basic medical training. It was 1976 and Fu, with no hope of furthering his education, embarked on what would become a lifelong career. For 18 months, he traveled his native Hubei province to vaccinate children against diseases like tuberculosis, polio, measles, mumps and rubella. He also worked in a local medical clinic.

“In those days there was a shortage of doctors in the rural areas,” he said. “The university was closed due to the Cultural Revolution. So there was no medical school; there were no doctors trained.”

Four patients laid the groundwork to change Fu’s life: bitten by animals, all feared they had contracted rabies. At that time in China, there were no diagnostic tests to confirm its presence. The only treatment consisted of 21 shots in the abdomen, which carried dangerous side effects. Patients who did not take the vaccinations, but developed rabies, faced death.

“That was the most difficult dilemma in many ways,” said Fu, recalling what it was like to explain the risks to each patient. “You could not get rabies from the vaccine, but you’d get symptoms like rabies.”

The side effects could last a lifetime.

“The whole experience got me interested in rabies,” he said.

At 18, after growing up in a society where he’d been offered few choices about his future, Fu was given the opportunity to take a college entrance exam and subsequently enrolled in Hubei’s re-opened university.

“At that time, rabies was not on my mind. I just wanted to go to university,” he said. “Medicine was on my mind. Medicine was one of the areas I applied for.”

Fu studied at New Zealand’s Massey University Faculty of Veterinary Sciences, and later became a researcher at the Wistar Institute, where researchers were developing a rabies vaccine for humans and an oral bait vaccine for animals. Wistar’s director, Dr. Hilary Koprowski, became Fu’s lifelong mentor.

At UGA, Fu is the only member of the College of Veterinary Medicine’s pathology department who isn’t a pathologist. Instead, he studies and teaches others about the pathogenesis of diseases.

“Hopefully, by understanding the disease process, we can design a vaccine, but most important is the potential for designing therapeutics,” Fu said. “With rabies, part of our research is trying to figure out if we can stop the disease process. Actually we have had very good results and might be able to do so.”

A consultant since 1997 for China, Fu is helping the government there develop its public health policy on rabies control, and also on the establishment of four diagnostic centers-including one in Hubei-where rabies and other diseases can be properly diagnosed. China’s dedication to controlling rabies is for him a personal victory.