2018 is the 100th anniversary of a pandemic influenza that killed as many as 100 million people, about 4% of the global population. Ordinary seasonal influenza viruses normally bind only to cells in the upper respiratory tract - the nose and throat - which is why they transmit easily. In 1918, the virus did that, but it also infected cells deep in its victims' lungs and precipitated viral and bacterial pneumonias. The origin of the pandemic is unclear, but wherever it began, it spread rapidly around the world. In fifteen months, it became the deadliest outbreak in human history.
Despite a hundred years of remarkable progress in what we know and do about preventing and treating infectious diseases, little has changed. Influenza remains a major threat. When asked by a Washington Post reporter, "What scares you the most? What keeps you awake at night?" Tom Frieden, former head of the CDC, said that his "biggest concern is always for an influenza pandemic.... If you have something that spreads to a third of the population and can kill a significant proportion of those it affects, you have the makings of a major disaster."
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To mark the anniversary of the 1918 epidemic and to explore pandemic risks in an ecological context, the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC is presenting "Outbreak: Epidemics in a Connected World." Focusing on land-use change, urbanization, and industrialized food production and other human causes of infectious-disease epidemics and their consequences for global population, the exhibition aims to increase understanding of how we can prevent zoonotic diseases from emerging and quickly spreading around the world.
Our mission is to inform and educate. ProMED is contributing to "Outbreak" by providing real-time infectious disease surveillance information accessible to viewers through an interactive touch-screen exhibit. Providing the public with human, animal, and environmental health reports, ProMED's presence underscores the importance of adopting a 'One Health' perspective to understanding emerging diseases. We can participate in this and other important educational undertakings only because you and the other ProMED subscribers generously support our work. Thank you.
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Larry Madoff, MD
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