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Tracking West Nile, awaiting flu season

As the commissioner of health for Erie County, Dr. Gale Burstein oversees 250 employees and heads a department that offers a slew of services. She met her husband at the University at Buffalo School of Medicine, and they have two sons. Burstein, 48, is a pediatrician by specialty and her field of expertise is adolescent sexual health. A good word to describe her?


>People Talk: Are you healthy?

Gale Burstein: Yes, I feel well, and I try to do what I can to maximize my health. I eat well. I don't smoke. I love to swim. I'm mentally healthy, too. I feel safe. I'm with people I love. I'm happy. My mood is good. I admit I have a lot of energy.

>PT: How did you discover medicine as a career?

GB: I always wanted to care for children, and when I was very young I wanted to be a nurse, because I didn't know women could be physicians. I was fortunate to get into medical school right after I graduated Union College in Schenectady.

>PT: What's the first thing you did after your appointment?

GB: I had the luxury of spending a week with Dr. [Anthony] Billittier to pick his brain and get some insight on his perception on the big health issues.

>PT: During your first 100 days, what was your goal?

GB: To go home. It was very overwhelming. It's a great job, the best I've had. The learning curve was very steep.

>PT: What have you learned recently?

GB: Eight percent of people who have West Nile Virus don't even know they're infected. Recently we've had the West Nile Virus in our community. We've had a particularly bad year, which is surprising because we've had a relatively dry summer. Mosquitoes like to reproduce in standing water, which is not being flushed out by rain – so they are prospering.

>PT: Do you expect a bad flu season?

GB: Yes. Here in the Northern Hemisphere, we copy what occurred in the Southern Hemisphere. They had a bad flu season with two new strains, both in this year's vaccine. We do a lot of surveillance in Australia.

>PT: When it comes to addiction, what is the current battleground?

GB: Abuse of prescription narcotics by young people is a huge problem. Our community doesn't really want to embrace it. We [at the Health Department] believe it's happening in all the schools. There's good data to show it's starting in middle school. It's a matter of education for not only the kids, but the parents who should not leave their prescription narcotic products out there. We have great services for addiction health; the problem is getting the kids there.

>PT: What is the simplest act a parent can do to ensure healthy children?

GB: Population-based studies have shown that kids are less likely to engage in risky behaviors if they feel connected to their parents. So talk to your kids about anything. Keep the doors open to conversation. Let them know they can tell you anything and you won't kill them or kick them out of the house. You can start talking to them about sex at a very young age by teaching what the correct language is for genital anatomy.

>PT: What could you do better?

GB: Sleep more. I'm chronically sleep-deprived. There's just so much to do. I'm on the board of directors for the Society for Adolescent Health and Medicine. Since 1998, I've run the professional development group and each year we talk about different aspects on being a parenting professional. Last year we talked about taking care of ourselves. It took 10 years for that topic to come up.

>PT: In your job as county health commissioner, how do you make up for the lack of patient contact?

GB: I'm still practicing medicine, just not at the same level. I work ?at a primary care clinic at Women ?& Children's Hospital two ?evenings a month. It helps me stay connected, and it's fun. I love seeing the kids.

>PT: Were you healthy as a child?

GB: I had allergies and asthma. Actually, I had a couple of anaphylactic reactions to bee stings. I've been desensitized.

>PT: Were you ever bullied?

GB: Yes, if I wasn't in the popular crowd. Kids picked on me and made fun of my name. Burstein became burp stink. Yeah, I was bullied, and I wouldn't want to see that happen to my kids.

>PT: How do you pamper yourself?

GB: I am so lucky. My husband is a great cook. He makes dinner almost every night. Either he makes dinner or we order out. In college, he was a cook at Commander's Palace in New Orleans. He went to Tulane and transferred to UB. He's also a gastroenterologist.

>PT: What do you see yourself doing 10 years from now?

GB: You know, I just gave up trying to predict where I'm going to be.