Smithsonian opens exhibit featuring contagious diseases

KeepHealthCare.ORG – Smithsonian opens exhibit featuring contagious diseases

The Smithsonian Institution on Wednesday prepared to share the story of how Ebola devastated West Africa and how health officials had battled it and other contagious diseases, just as an experimental vaccine reached the Democratic Republic of the Congo to fight a worsening outbreak of the deadly virus.

The exhibit, titled “Outbreak: Epidemics in a Connected World,” is set to run for three years at the at the Museum of Natural History in Washington. Kirk Johnson, the museum’s director, said 10 million visitors are expected during that time.

“It’s a remarkable number and a remarkable way to have public access to complex and important topics,” he said during remarks at a press opening.

The exhibit will open to the public Friday, meant to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the Great Influenza. The pandemic, which occurred during World War I, was so severe that it caused life expectancy in the U.S. to fall for three years in a row and killed more people than the war did.

Officials from the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were at the press opening. After walking through the exhibit, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said, “It was like I was in a dream and someone said, ‘This is your life.'”

Fauci has been leading the nation’s public health efforts focused on infectious diseases from Ebola to SARS, a respiratory illness that killed 774 people in 2003. His agency is overseeing work on a vaccine for Zika, a mosquito-borne virus that causes pregnant women to give birth to babies with abnormally small heads, physical disabilities and brain damage. He also is prioritizing the development of a universal flu vaccine, which would require people to be vaccinated only once in their lives, rather than every year.

All of those illnesses were featured in the exhibit. The museum has a timeline of HIV/AIDS, features mannequins wearing protective gear against Ebola, and displays ticks and mosquitoes that have spread infections from animals to humans. The corner of the exhibit telling the story of Nipah, a deadly illness that causes brain swelling that infects bats, pigs and humans, has a preserved bat behind a glass case and pottery from Bangladesh symbolizing outbreaks there.

“As the years go by we are even more prepared,” Fauci told the Washington Examiner. He pointed to the current efforts against Ebola in the Congo. During the outbreak in 2014 and 2015, officials had difficulty containing the virus. It killed more than 11,300 people in Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Liberia, and also reached the U.S.

“If you compare what we had then with what we have now, we have made enormous advances,” Fauci said. “We are much more prepared now than we were then.”

The aim of the exhibit is to help visitors understand the way environmental, animal, and human health are connected, and to highlight the ways public health officials have been able to identify and fight disease. The museum uses pictures, graphics and models, and interactive computer games.

“I think the public gets bombarded when there are outbreaks with terrifying messages — Ebola, avian influenza, SARS — the fact that things can spread around the world, but they are never really taught why they happen or taught how we can do better at detecting and responding to these diseases and in fact prevent them from happening,” said Jonathan Epstein, chief science adviser for the exhibit, who is vice president for science and outreach at EcoHealth Alliance. “And this exhibit does that.”

The U.S. recently has come off a particularly dire flu season. In the policy arena, Congress is considering the reauthorization of legislation to address pandemics, while the Trump administration has called for $252 million in cuts to Ebola funds that haven’t been spent.

Health officials Wednesday stressed that it was important for the public and policymakers not to become complacent during times when infections appear to be at bay in the U.S. Officials consider pandemics to be among the greatest threats to human health, and the exhibit provides several examples of illnesses spreading across the world because of how people travel.

Fauci said he hoped young people who are interested in science would be inspired to go into public health after visiting the exhibit.

“In science, we always need good, new young people with fresh ideas,” he said. “The issue of public health and emerging infections is so exciting because it’s amazingly challenging, it has potential enormous impact, and there is something you can do about it.”


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