Irina Tabidze, epidemiologist targets syphilis

Transmitted behind closed doors, camouflaged by easily overlooked early symptoms — a sore that doesn't hurt, a rash that doesn't itch — and capable of mimicking so many other diseases that it has been called "The Great Imitator," syphilis is a worthy foe.

But, then again, so is Irina Tabidze.

A gynecologist by training, Tabidze was doing research on syphilis diagnosis at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta when she got excited about the field of epidemiology, in which whole populations are studied in order to determine the risk factors for a disease. She went back to school, getting her master's degree in public health from the University of Illinois at Chicago, and has spent the past 11 years overseeing syphilis data collection and working on syphilis surveillance and prevention programs as an epidemiologist at the Chicago Department of Public Health.

Among her top goals: eliminating potentially deadly congenital syphilis, which is passed from mother to child during pregnancy or at birth and can very often be prevented with good prenatal care. Depending on her stage of infection, a woman with untreated syphilis may be at high risk for having a baby who is stillborn or who dies shortly after birth. An infected baby who is not treated with penicillin may experience syphilis-related seizures, developmental delays or die.

There were 22 presumptive cases of congenital syphilis reported to the Chicago Department of Health in 2012 and 585 cases of primary and secondary syphilis, the earliest and most infectious stages of this serious but highly treatable sexually transmitted disease.

Tabidze, who grew up in the Republic of Georgia, lives with her husband and their 12-year-old son in Chicago's Streeterville neighborhood. She says that she sometimes misses practicing medicine, but she loves her job.

"I always like to work in a field where I see results," she says. "I cannot deal when there's no outcome. ... I really want to see not just any outcome but a positive outcome. I want to eliminate congenital syphilis in Chicago, and, if we work more with the community and the (health care) providers, we should be able to, if not eliminate syphilis, at least get to a smaller number of cases. We shouldn't have anybody be diagnosed at this time, because it's curable and preventable."

Following is an edited transcript.

Q: Did you always know you wanted to be a doctor?

A: I made the decision to become a doctor when I was in the ninth grade, and my uncle passed away. He was 37, 38 years old, and he got in a car accident and he passed away, and I said it to myself and I told my parents, "I'm going to be (a doctor), because this is unacceptable that he died." He was so young. It was so painful. And he was a wonderful person.

Q: Is it fair to say that syphilis is fairly rare?

A: It's a rare disease. Actually, back in 1999 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention came up with a plan to eliminate syphilis in the U.S., and it was paradoxical: As soon as they came up with a syphilis elimination plan, rates started rising.

Q: What's the trend now?

A: We as a country are on a (path) to eliminate at least congenital syphilis cases. Congenital syphilis is preventable with right and timely prenatal care. Sometimes there are very sad cases. We have syphilitic stillborn cases (in Chicago). It's just one or two, maximum. Last year, we did not have any syphilitic stillborn babies. However, it's unacceptable, in my opinion, to have any babies born with congenital syphilis.

Q: What do you do when you're not working?

A: That's a good question. I think, honestly, I became a workaholic, so now I tell myself, under no circumstances will I be checking emails from home. I stopped that. I have a 12-year-old son, so now when I have free time, we're doing homework, or I'm driving him to tennis or different activities, so I'm kind of a full-time chauffeur. We don't have any relatives (here). So, basically, it's me and my husband doing everything. If I have any time, I'm either reading or on the phone with my friends.

Q: Do you have a favorite book?

A: My favorite book is "Gone With the Wind." It was such a wonderful book, and, even now, if there's something stressful in my life and I need to make a decision, I'm thinking like Scarlett, "Oh, I'm not going to think about it today. I'm going to think about it tomorrow," and it helps me so much. I'm less emotional. I read this book a long time ago, but it stayed with me throughout life.

Q: What's your motto when it comes to work?

A: Coco Chanel says, "There is time for work. And time for love. That leaves no other time." And I think that's so wise. We need to be able to work and we need to be able to love. And if I love and I am passionate, it is unconditional. If my son needs something or my husband, they're my priority. I don't think this is right or wrong, but (it's) because I love them so much. I enjoy when I am working. I am passionate when I'm working. I am happy because my mind is busy. However, when I am at home, I am enjoying myself because I love them so much.

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