How A Vanderbilt Doctor Became The Nation's Go-To Flu Expert | Nashville Public Radio

How A Vanderbilt Doctor Became The Nation's Go-To Flu Expert

Nov 29, 2017

When flu season comes around each year, a familiar face from Nashville appears in homes around the country: Dr. William Schaffner. The Vanderbilt doctor has become a media darling when it comes to infectious diseases. 

More than 50 years after he started his medical career at Vanderbilt University, Schaffner has become one of the media industry’s go-to guys. Whether it’s mumps, measles, or meningitis, he’s talked about it on TV or in print — probably more than once.

A quick online search for Schaffner reveals dozens of news stories with his voice and face, some as recent as this week. By his own estimation, he's made thousands of appearances, but he says he’s never gotten sick of it.

“It’s not boring," says Schaffner. "It’s actually a privilege to teach the next generation."

Schaffner has the voice for the job. He’s quick, sharp and matter-of-fact, though he tries not to sensationalize.

“It has been said that on occasion I do pour oil on the troubled waters," he says. 

But he says he has a responsibility to tackle looming public health questions and assuage fears about outbreaks.

"I try to make things clear and understandable and reasonable," he says. "I can provide good information to the public so that the public has an understanding and they don’t have to panic."

But Schaffner doesn’t just talk to the media because it’s his responsibility — he says he genuinely loves to talk about disease. An early fascination with epidemics and the spread of infections has motivated him his entire career.

And it’s not just abnormal ailments that interest him, either. One of Schaffner’s favorite topics is the seasonal flu, a virus he wishes Americans would take more seriously. Thousands of people die from the flu, but only about half of Americans get vaccinated.

"Because it’s annual, people take it for granted. Whereas from an infectious disease doctor’s perspective, flu is serious," he says. "It makes an awful lot of people sick each and every year."

To get more people on board, Schaffner is promoting trendier research about longer-term complications from flu like heart attack and stroke.

All these years and interviews later, Schaffner’s advice for surviving flu season has evolved but is basically unchanged: Take care of yourself, wash your hands, and get your shot. It’s probably the message you’ll hear the next time he’s on national TV.