Catching Up With Dr. Alexander van Tulleken, That Charming Ebola Expert

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The Ebola epidemic that dominated the news cycle for the last couple of weeks has created at least one new media star: Dr. Alexander van Tulleken, a British doctor who works in Humanitarian Affairs at Fordham in the Bronx. Thanks to his specialty in tropical diseases, he’s been making the rounds as an expert on Fox 5, CNN, Al Jazeera, MSNBC, BBC World Service, and more. The reassurance that he typically offers — Ebola is not very contagious, it can be contained, and there won’t be an outbreak in a major Western city — is certainly calming. But Jon Stewart located another source of the doctor’s appeal last week, while showing a clip of van Tulleken explaining emphatically, and in a dashing British accent, that Ebola can only spread through direct contact with bodily fluids containing the virus. “I think Dr. Affleck just gave me some Ebola right here,” said Stewart, pointing to his heart. “Direct contact with bodily fluids?" Stewart tittered. "Worth it!” 

The Stewart clip aired while van Tulleken — 35, six-foot-one — was on a plane to Italy, heading for his identical twin brother Chris’s wedding in Tuscany, which is where I reached him. His top Google search autofills now include "girlfriend" and "married,” and even before the Stewart clip, he received “a very long and straightforward proposal for drinks” from a female psychology Ph.D. candidate. (“It seemed a little bit indiscriminate,” he told me, laughing. “It seemed like she might have just changed the name on a form letter.”)

He cut his teeth doing fieldwork in Darfur during the cease-fire of 2005 and spends a couple of weeks as a volunteer physician in Uganda every year. He’s also examined tribal medicine in remote parts of Congo, Gabon, Malaysia, India, Nepal, Russia, and Peru for a BBC miniseries called Medicine Men Gone Wild that he shot with Chris, who is currently getting a Ph.D. in molecular biology to study HIV. The twins have done a lot of TV together in the U.K. — often involving pseudo-scientific experiments about diet and binge-drinking that they do on themselves — leading to such lewd tweets as “I wouldn’t mind a van Tulleken sandwich!”

But Xand, as his friends call him, says Chris has always been better with the ladies. “I think the fact that my brother’s getting married tomorrow and I’m single answers that question. Hundred percent failure rate so far,” he says with trademark bumbling British humility. For now, he’s on Tinder — mainly because he's been too busy to fill out an OKCupid or Match.com profile — and, as for Stewart’s joke about bodily fluids, says: “If I was being honest, I’d have to say, you have to worry much more about tuberculosis and HIV. And mainly the fact that if you marry a tropical disease or a humanitarian doctor, you’ll be divorced within a year. It’s a terrible lifestyle. It’s like marrying a war journalist or something.”

Van Tulleken hasn’t worked on the ground during an Ebola epidemic, but he’s worked in every country where there has been one, as well as in outbreak control for the World Health Organization. He thinks that the key to stopping this Ebola outbreak is containing it in West Africa through isolation and treatment, plus “Active case finding: going into communities and looking for cases,” and “Contact tracing: finding everyone who was in contact with the person and watching them for symptoms.” Understanding local culture is key, he says, as well as public education, since it’s difficult to stop the spread of a virus when, say, 90 percent of 1,000 people surveyed by Samaritan's Purse in Monrovia didn’t believe in Ebola. Sick Americans, he says, are actually, perversely, a bright light for Africans, because, he says, “it has spurred research into vaccines and treatments, which is good news. This is containable.” Now just imagine him saying that in his British accent, while feeding you chocolate, and everything’s going to be all right.