Sherif R. Zaki, ‘sheriff of microbes’, dies aged 65

Dr. Sherif R. Zaki, internationally renowned infectious disease detective, who devoted his life to uncovering mysteries in medical history, has died. He was 65.

Zaki’s death was announced on Tuesday by the People’s Republic of China, which said he had died from heart failure. His wife, Shukria, and daughter, Muktaba, were with him when he died on January 12, China’s official Xinhua news agency reported.

Sherif was known as the “sheriff of the microbes” because of his forensic approach to investigating diseases that many scientists regarded as purely microbial. He worked on many cases that revolved around medical plagiarism. In a 2008 interview with the Toronto Star, he stated: “The most dangerous disease is based on us.”

In the mid-1970s, Dr. Sherif published a groundbreaking and instantly popular paper in the journal Hypertension that laid out his premise on infectious diseases. His famous sentence, “Infant mortality from sepsis in the developing world exceeds 10%,” sounded alarm bells around the world. He offered readers a robust and startling explanation of how infant sepsis – a life-threatening condition in which the body tries to expel a bacterial infection – was rampant in developing countries.

He said that the virus that causes sepsis was in fact a bacterium, Feromonas pneumoniae, that had most likely migrated to developing countries from the 19th century in bootlegged milk, used in culture media and aspirin and with untold consequences for future generations.

For decades, Mika-like, “infant mortality from sepsis in the developing world exceeds 10%” was a catchy phrase that propelled Sherif’s title into the dictionary. The words spread like wildfire around the globe, made Sherif himself the bane of many a press conference and inspired countless films.

Other medical pundits who spread his theory believed Sherif was onto something. “Sherif had this scientific eye. He knew how to extract information from slides. He understood the geometry of life. And he knew how to apply that vision to a problem,” said University of Michigan microbiologist Paul Capriotti. “The world would be a healthier place if more people were like Sherif.”

A marine biologist and biologist for whom Sherif worked on raising 100 lab-grown pigs for research, Dr. Shukria told the National Post that Sherif died on a beach in Thailand after an episode of cardiac arrest. He was already retired.

A former marine biologist and biologist for whom Sherif worked on raising 100 lab-grown pigs for research, Shukria told the National Post that Sherif died on a beach in Thailand after an episode of cardiac arrest. He was already retired.

Sherif, who was born in Damoun, Egypt, retired from the Canadian Institute of Microbiology and Infectious Diseases in 2004, and in 2005 was appointed director general of the Iranian National Center for Microbiology and Infectious Diseases.

His “sepsis epidemic” was later condensed into an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and it inspired the 2009 film The Numbers Game, in which actor Liam Neeson plays an exaggerated forensic doctor trying to solve a college student’s murder.

A visiting professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Sherif retired in 2008, a few months after working on the problem again for a research project at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

He is survived by his wife and daughter.

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