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December 3, 2018

Public Health Emergencies in a Connected World

By Sara Rotenberg

In our increasingly connected world, there are constant opportunities for viruses to spread internationally. These public health emergencies demand cooperation and collaboration from numerous actors, and those tasked with running outbreak response must balance various competing interests to reduce the spread of these deadly pathogens. Preparing and responding to outbreaks is challenging, and merits further understanding and improvement.

In this vein, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History has created a new exhibit: Outbreak: Epidemics in a Connected World. The exhibit explores the origins of outbreaks, mechanisms for transmission, and efforts for preparation and response in order to give visitors a better understanding of infectious disease outbreaks. Since one of the creators, Dr. Daniel Lucey, is a professor at Georgetown’s School of Medicine and a senior fellow at the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law, Georgetown students had the opportunity to tour the exhibition with him in early September. Before our tour we had the privilege of hearing about his immense experience working on outbreak response around the world and his inspiration for developing the exhibit.

After hearing from Dr. Lucey, we walked through the exhibit with him. One of the most impressive parts of the exhibit is how it is able to represent, in both creation and content, the collaborative and interdisciplinary nature of outbreak response. For example, Dr. Lucey spoke about how the development of the exhibition involved input from an array of global health practitioners, writers, and museum curators. By working together, the Outbreak exhibit team was able to create an accessible and comprehensive introduction to outbreak response that included the perspective of epidemiologists, policy makers, veterinarians, and frontline health workers. This aspect is critical to the exhibit’s success because it emulates the real-world interdisciplinary response efforts we see in outbreak response around the world.

Most recently, the necessity of interdisciplinary work in global health has been demonstrated in the Democratic Republic of Congo where violence and conflict has compounded the challenges of responding to the recent Ebola outbreak. In the DRC, the World Health Organization and frontline health workers from NGOs like Médecins Sans Frontiers have had to work with the local government and law enforcement to be able to safely establish treatment centers and implement infection control. This example of collaboration in practice is not isolated, but a key message that is highlighted through other examples in the exhibit.

However, the exhibit does not just focus on the challenges and responses, but the triumphs and preparedness efforts that have contributed to progress in this field. Overall, Outbreak leaves visitors with the sentiment that, while there are persistent threats, these challenges are matched with efforts to counteract them and innovations in response. Exhibitions that are able to educate without alarming and that demonstrate collaboration are critical for engaging more people in global health, and we at Georgetown are fortunate to be nearby museums that are able to achieve this duality and engagement.

Sara Rotenberg (NHS'20) is an undergraduate studying global health and health policy and a student fellow with the Global Health Initiative.