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Death By Pandemic: Will It Happen Again? Could It Happen Here?

Thursday, April 7, 2016 - Campus News -

Ebola infected tens of thousands and caused more than 11,000 deaths. It was a wake-up call for the world and for the U.S. when it arrived here by way of an infected traveler, then spread to one of the health care workers charged with his care.

Ever wondered what factors put us greater risk for a pandemic that will kill millions? Author Sonia Shah said history points to important lessons that still have not been learned when it comes to preventing the spread of infectious disease and preventing pandemics.

“Over the last 50 years, we’ve had about 300 novel infectious diseases, either newly emerged out of nowhere or reemerge into new places where they have never been seen before. Zika is just the latest one,” Shah said. “In a recent survey of experts on pandemic threats, over two-thirds said a pandemic that would sicken a billion people, kill 165 million and cost the global economy $3 trillion could occur sometime in the next two generations.”

Shah was the featured speaker for the Inaugural Hudson Fellows in Public Health sponsored by the University of Oklahoma College of Public Health. She pointed out key factors that fueled the spread of cholera historically. Many of those same factors exist today, she said, but now on a global scale.

Among all of the pandemic-causing pathogens, cholera has been one of the most successful, Shah said. It has caused seven global pandemics - the most recent currently going several hundred miles off the coast of Florida in Haiti. She added cholera is also very deadly, killing half of those who get it.

“Pandemics are very disruptive. How does a tiny microbe cause all of this disruption? It’s a multi-stage process and involves a lot of human activity,” Shah said.

About 60 percent of all pathogens originate in animals, Shah explained, and when humans encroach upon wildlife habitats, the opportunity arises for pathogens to crossover from their animal hosts to humans.

Rapid urbanization historically also helped fuel the spread of cholera. Cities were overcrowded. Sanitation was poor. She pointed out those same conditions exist today in many of the developing regions of the world. 

“By 2030, the majority of citizens will live in cities,” she said. “Pathogens have already started to take advantage of that.”

She explained that Ebola already existed in Africa. However in the past, it rarely reached areas populated by more than 200 people. In the deadly outbreak that started in 2013, the infection of a single toddler who’d handled fruit infected by a bat quickly spread to his family, their health care workers and eventually to tens of thousands, many in the largest cities of those countries affected. 

Shah pointed to new and improved modes of transportation as another enabler of widespread disease historically. As people travel, so too do outbreaks.

“In fact, our flight network is so influential in shaping how epidemics spread that you can actually predict where an epidemic will strike next just by measuring the number of direct flights between infected and uninfected cities,” Shah said.

Historically, Shah explained the best solutions to halting a pandemic were not always popular with the leaders of industry and therefore not pursued. Similar influences exist today, she said. So what will it take to generate the political will to effect meaningful change and better protect individual and population health today? Shah believes it require a grassroots effort with consumer pressure helping fuel change.

Biomedicine has brought great strides against disease, but it alone will not halt infectious diseases, said Shah. Instead, she said it will require a multidisciplinary approach.

“Public health is about protecting the places where we live work and play, and about minimizing our health risks. Understanding the tremendous impact of infectious diseases and pandemics on health is a critical component of this. Ms. Shah’s presentation and her book point to important matters within the public health community as we look to safeguard and improve both individual and population health,” said Gary Raskob, Ph.D., dean of the OU College of Public Health.

Shah’s presentation was part of a week-long schedule of events and activities hosted by the college that are aimed at raising awareness of the importance of public health as part of National Public Health Week, which aims to raise awareness of the critical importance of public health in our communities, our nation and the world.

The Hudson Fellows Symposium was made possible by a generous donation by Dr. Leslie Hudson and Mr. Clifford Hudson. That donation also provides scholarships each year for two students pursuing doctoral degrees in public health. 

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