Metropolis: Wednesday, August 27, 2003
Fantastic Voyage

Fort Worth’s top bug hunter is taking on some big jobs.


Witold “Vito” Migala is a hunter. It’s a description that can be taken many different ways — from the literal to the figurative to the ironic. But when you break down what Vito Migala, 45, does and how he lives his life, the term “hunter” jumps out at every turn.

In his professional life, he’s chief epidemiologist for the Fort Worth Health Department, one of those known in the medical trade as “bug hunters,” scientists who track down bacterial and viral outbreaks and try to contain or eradicate them. More literally, one of Migala’s hobbies is tracking and killing wild pigs on a hunting lease he and some buddies keep down in Bandera County. His other hobby is world travel — he’s been to some 40 countries — but he’s not the usual comfort-seeking member of the tourist herd. Searching for new cultures is the purpose, and he usually travels peasant-style, riding around the third world in crowded buses, searching for places and peoples that may not be around in a few years. In a sense, he is hunting for cultures facing extinction.

“I guess I’ve always been attracted to looking for out-of-the-way places to go and to be exposed to cultures that are quickly vanishing,” Migala said. “It’s funny, but sometimes the things we do in public health — bringing countries and peoples into the modern world, giving them a chance to fight disease and improve their lives — is a major part of their culture changing.”

The irony is not lost on Migala. If he were just another public servant who developed educational programs to help fight West Nile virus and SARS, the health department’s point man on bioterrorism and homeland security issues, he would be an interesting enough guy. But Migala is also involved in two public health issues that have implications around the globe.

In late May, Migala was one of 28 civilians chosen to participate in a military exercise called “Cobra Gold,” a 14,000-troop effort in Thailand designed to help the armed forces deal with postwar humanitarian and political issues. And he is one of just 34 public health scientists chosen globally by the World Health Organization to begin working in September to implement a plan to help eradicate the polio virus from the planet. On that mission, he will serve for three months in the African island-nation of Madagascar.

“The most lethal animals in the world aren’t big game, they are microscopic organisms,” Migala said. “In the case of the polio virus, we have the opportunity to wipe a species off the planet. It’s very exciting to be part of an effort that will have historical implications for every human being on the planet.”

I’ve known Migala for about five years. He’s too much of a wild hair to ever fit my stereotypical perception of a microbe-bedeviled scientist. Over beer at Fred’s Café, Migala jumps from topic to topic, place-to-place around the world: driving a dune buggy through Mexico, observing a polio eradication effort in Nepal, discussing the relationship between migratory bird flyways and West Nile virus, gutting a wild hog in Bandera County.

Last month when Vito mentioned Cobra Gold, my first thought was that he had put a new driver in his golf bag or developed a taste for malt liquor. Then when he told me that the term was the code name for some military war games, I feared he might have to kill me to ensure the integrity of the project.

But Cobra Gold is a long-standing military exercise in the Pacific Rim that has been going on for nearly two decades. The major difference this year was the emphasis on humanitarian and postwar political issues. With the postwar problems in Iraq and Afghanistan, winning the actual military battles has not been the issue; winning the peace has become the more difficult agenda. Restoring electric power, providing a safe water supply, and ensuring public access to health care have in some ways become more important in Iraq than tracking down Saddam Hussein.

A recent article in the Los Angeles Times quoted a senior Defense Department official as saying the ramp-up for war included little planning on what postwar Iraq might really need. “Rebuilding local governance, immediate replacement of the security apparatus — these things were never adequately discussed,” the official said. The attitude was, “we’ll go with what we’ve got and take care of the rest when we get there.”

The military has long given lip service to the needs of postwar civilians; after all, the primary jobs of soldiers in the past were to conquer, kill people, and break things. But in the era of modern warfare, with precision bombing capabilities and battle areas populated with noncombatants, restoring order within the confines of local political organizations is paramount. “It doesn’t do us any good to have a military effort that is not supported by diplomatic effort and humanitarian efforts at the same time,” U.S. Marine Major Guillermo Canedo said in a phone interview. He’s a media officer at the U.S. Pacific Command in Hawaii, which oversaw the 2003 training sessions.

The Cobra Gold exercise in Thailand involved a scenario wherein troops under United Nations command were ordered to restore order in a country that had been invaded by a neighboring state. Migala and the civilian contingent helped to create scenarios that the military had to deal with, from refugee camps to outbreaks of infectious diseases to helping with body collection and disposal. In one scenario, Migala was required to role-play as a government official of the invaded country to make “reasonable and unreasonable” demands of the military.

Vito Migala’s younger brother Henri (both were born in Paris to a French mother and Polish father) also participated in Cobra Gold. “In the military, everything is so detailed, so perfectly delineated,” said Henri Migala, director of health programs for International Relief Teams, a nonprofit humanitarian organization based in San Diego. “Humanitarian issues aren’t so convenient. They don’t always fit in the military’s organizational structure. That’s what probably happened in Iraq, and I think with our training help, they might be better situated to handle these things in the future.”

Part of the exercise involved the brothers Migala and the rest of the team in creating a mystery disease (dubbed MARS, or “Mysterious Acute Respiratory Syndrome”) that was infecting 1,900 soldiers and refugees every day with a mortality rate of 10 percent. The military did not know if the disease was part of a bioterrorist attack, or a “naturally occurring” infection like cholera. “The leadership had to respond to [MARS],” Vito Migala said. “Whether the biological event is terrorism or naturally occurring, the military has to respond to it and do what is necessary to contain the disease.”

He leaves next week to begin work on the polio project. The World Health Organization sees an opportunity to eradicate the disease by 2005. There were about 1,200 polio cases worldwide last year, mostly in India and Africa. It may be possible to eradicate polio because it affects only humans and not animals, produces no symptom-less carriers who can host the disease unknowingly for years, thus providing the breeding ground for new outbreaks, and is preventable by a vaccine.

Migala will go to Madagascar, the fourth-largest island in the world, off Africa’s eastern coast. He will oversee nationwide immunization efforts and then track the results, hoping to separate actual polio cases from other non-polio childhood paralysis cases. The value to Fort Worth, said Migala’s boss, FWHD Director Dan Reimer, “is that he’ll be exposed to new surveillance techniques and intervention strategies that are community-based. The citizens of Fort Worth will benefit from Vito’s experience in eradicating polio.”

Migala will be working with renowned Dr. David Heymann, the WHO’s famous epidemiologist. Heymann helped discover two diseases (ebola and Legionnaire’s), was primarily responsible for ridding the world of smallpox, and most recently helped stopped the spread of SARS. Migala said he is “extremely honored to have been chosen to work with Dr. Heymann.” Reimer said Migala’s appointment is “an indication that the quality of staff we have here at the health department is world class.”

For most people, spending three months in Madagascar, a country with about the same area and population as Texas but with an average per capita income of only $800, might not be considered a prime assignment. For Migala, living and working in the far corners of the globe is exactly what he wants. Madagascar has unique flora and fauna, he said, the beaches are unspoiled, and most meals cost $2 or so.

“And you know those huge 6-inch long cockroaches they had crawling around on those people in the tv show Fear Factor?” he asked. “They’re from Madagascar. Guess I’ll have to check under my bed before I go to sleep at night.”

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