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Dr. Bruce Dan, at 64; helped link toxic shock, tampons

By Dennis Hevesi
New York Times / September 12, 2011

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NEW YORK - Dr. Bruce Dan, who as a leading federal researcher helped establish a link between the life-threatening disease toxic shock syndrome and the use of tampons, prompting a major shift in the way tampons are produced, died Tuesday in Baltimore. He was 64.

The cause was complications of a bone marrow transplant he received last year after learning he had leukemia, said his wife, Lisa Stark, a correspondent for ABC News.

Dr. Dan, who later became a television medical commentator, was a member of the Toxic Shock Syndrome Task Force, which was created by the Centers for Disease Control in 1980 after a virulent outbreak of the disease. For two years, with no official leader, the group’s members traveled around the United States and to foreign countries acting as disease detectives delving into the daily habits and medical histories of victims.

“Bruce was one of the most critical people in all these studies; his contributions were central to the findings,’’ said Dr. Arthur Reingold, who was a member of the task force and is a professor of epidemiology at the University of California, Berkeley.

Toxic shock syndrome, caused by a potent strain of the bacterium Staphylococcus aureus, is an infection that produces high fever, a drastic drop in blood pressure, organ failure, a skin rash that frequently covers the entire body, and if the patient lives long enough, a peeling of the skin in layers. Patients can die within days.

The task force found that a large proportion of cases involved previously healthy women who had been stricken during a menstrual period, and that tampons were a highly significant risk factor. One study, in which Dr. Dan played a central role, showed that one brand of tampon, Rely, made by Procter & Gamble, carried an elevated risk because its lubricant, Pluronic L92, greatly increased the level of toxins in the bacterium.

“He was an extraordinarily energetic and imaginative investigator,’’ said Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist at Vanderbilt University, “and, as such, provided much of the critical information that led to the conclusion that the use of Rely tampons provoked this infection.’’

Based on the task force’s findings, Rely was removed from the market and other tampon brands were redesigned so that their surfaces were far less able to provide a growth medium for the bacterium.

The findings received wide news coverage, with Dr. Dan often before the cameras answering reporters’ questions. That struck him as another way to make a contribution, through journalism, so in 1983 he became a senior editor at the Journal of the American Medical Association, a position he held for nine years.

While at the journal, which is based in Chicago, he was hired by WLS-TV, a local station, as its on-camera medical expert. In 1993, he moved to New York to become executive editor and anchor for the Medical News Network, which provides daily newscasts directly to doctors’ offices.

In 1981, Dr. Dan received the CDC’s highest award for epidemic investigation, the Alexander D. Langmuir Prize, and the US Public Health Service Commendation Medal.

Bruce Bespalow Dan was born in Memphis, Tenn., to Merrill and Hope Bespalow Dan. Besides his wife, he leaves a daughter, Rachel; a son, Ethan; his parents; two brothers, Terry and Henry; and a sister, Wendy.

Dr. Dan’s shift from medical researcher to television commentator was an indication of his range of interests. He received his bachelor’s degree in aeronautics from MIT in 1968 and a master’s degree in biomedical engineering from Purdue a year later. While at Purdue, he decided that he wanted to be a doctor. He graduated from the Vanderbilt School of Medicine in 1974.

“I have no idea why he decided to go to medical school,’’ his wife said. “He was like a renaissance man, always reinventing himself.’’