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December 10, 2018

Students Simulate Pandemic in Capstone to GHI Great Influenza Centenary Project

On November 30, Georgetown faculty and students ran a day-long simulation of how the global health community might react to a modern pandemic similar to the 1918 Spanish Flu.

Students present to an expert panel of global health practitioners.
Students present to an expert panel of global health practitioners.

As the capstone project to the Global Health Initiative’s Great Influenza Centenary Project, students from across the university took on mock professional roles and responded in real-time to updates on the global spread of the hypothetical virus.

“The simulation was a great opportunity for the students to apply what they’ve learned and to respond in an interdisciplinary way to the still very real threat of a global influenza pandemic” said Michael Stoto, the project organizer and professor in the Department of Health Systems Administration in the School of Nursing and Health Studies.

Coordinating Between Groups

The event simulated the progression of a high-mortality strain of influenza that quickly spread to the United States after originating in Vietnam. 

Over the course of the day, faculty provided students with periodic scripted updates on the flu’s spread. With each update, students assessed the disease’s causes and transmission, coordinated within and across international agencies, and formulated policy responses. 

Students had been preparing for the event and studying the 1918 and more recent pandemics since September, but the dual task of creating policy while coordinating between groups still proved challenging.

“The hardest thing was finding out what was needed from each level of response,” said Amy Meng (C’18), a biology of global health major. “Another challenge was the ability to make and ask for concessions from other teams and work out agreements.”

Presenting to Experts

Following each progression of the simulation, students presented their findings and recommendations to a panel of real-world professionals, including School of Foreign Service Dean Joel Hellman and former chief of staff to Nancy Pelosi, John Lawrence. 

Dr. Phillip Nguyen, author of the simulation and instructor in the Department of Family Medicine at the Georgetown Medical Center, said:

“One of the goals at the end of the day is teaching them how to approach complex issues.”  

“I was surprised at the speed at which they realized the logical fallacies and picked up on what was missing," Nguyen added. "I think this comes from their background in the 1918 flu and skills they already had. We did our best to trick them.”

“Let’s hope the ‘big one’ doesn’t happen soon, but when it does, these students will be able to help the world respond more effectively” said Stoto.

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