The Threat of Pandemics, Not to Mention Fear and Panic (Plenary 4)

Engaging. Thought-provoking. Information-packed.  The list of adjectives to describe Laurie Garrett’s lecture “Working Together Toward Global Health” that was the final plenary of MLA13 could be pages long.

Garrett, a Pulitzer-prize winning science journalist, as well as the Senior Fellow of the Global Health Program of the Council on Foreign Relations clearly is a knowledgeable woman, but she also is a phenomenal speaker.  Her topic–the history of and how to prevent pandemics from HIV/AIDS to SARS to H7N9–is incredibly complex, and yet she was able to present it in a clear manner, in spite of being interrupted partway through by a fire alarm in the convention center.

Garrett started off her talk by giving a shout-out to librarians, calling it, “one of my absolute favorite professions.”  She delivered an anecdote about sneaking into a medical library’s stacks to spend all day reading.  With the crowd now connected with her, she announced that she was going to take us through intense context to understand the current state of possible pandemics.

Through a series of graphs and numbers, we saw that in 1990 funding for global health was low.  The WHO had the most invested, followed by the USA.  Thanks to activists screaming for attention to the global health problem in 2001, funding vastly approved in 2003 to 2008.  Currently, the USA is now the most invested, followed by GFAIM, NGOs, and then the WHO.  Garrett pointed out that the market crash has had a strong negative impact on funding for global health and also that even the funding that does exist is not based on need but on what people are willing to dole out money for.  The funding situation is clearly dire.  The WHO funding, when adjusted for inflation, is back down to 1990′s levels.  Lack of funding is not a positive predictor for global health.

At this point Garrett shifted focus to more recent pandemics, starting with SARS, followed by novel Coronavirus (nCOV) and H7N9 (Chinese bird flu).  Utilizing real life responses from these examples, Garrett showed us both the science of how a pandemic hits and how panic sets in.

Part of the panic in China during SARS was due to the fact that the government as first lied, stating there was no epidemic, there was no SARS.  The people then felt they couldn’t trust the government and were on their own.  Inflammatory tv coverage and seeing people everywhere in face masks did not help the fear levels.  When the government did respond, they locked residents into the cities, stopped people every 20 to 30 miles for fever checks and quarantined anyone with a fever in an isolation hospital.  When H7N9 showed up, the government was again denying it existed, causing the Chinese people to respond by posting to Weibo (China’s twitter) photos both of the dead birds who had fallen from the sky and in one case a patient’s chart showing they had H7N9.  Yet, mass cullings of poultry are underway.

At this point, Garrett played a video for us on DURC–dual-use research of concern.  She stated that it is now common for some scientists to purposefully create one of these viruses in a lab then mutate it to make multiple strains in an attempt to see what it could possibly do and maybe figure out a way to respond to it ahead of time.  The reason for concern about this type of finagling with viruses is clear.  Germ warfare.  The video also made the connection between the synthetic biology (genetic engineering of new creations) that science is moving toward and the already available 3D printing.  If we could print organic materials we could print new living creations, including, of course, viruses to be used as Weapons of Mass Destruction.  The video then asked who is going to regulate this?  The WHO is already stretched too thin, and the wealthiest countries, the uprising BRICS, don’t want to be regulated to the extent that would be necessary.

Garrett then wrapped up with a take-home message, which attempted to tell us librarians in the audience something we can do about all this.  She told us that it’s key for us to “fight fakers, liars, and phonies.”  The more bad information is out there that is being believed, the harder it is for the public health people to do their jobs.  A great example is how many vaccine-preventable illnesses are showing up in the United States now thanks to the flat-out scientifically inaccurate anti-vaccination movement.  She also told the disturbing story of how some false information in the Hollywood movie Zero Dark Thirty has led to polio workers being shot in Islamic countries.  Clearly misinformation is a global problem, and this is something that medical librarians can work to fight.

Garrett wrapped up by shouting out, “Libraries rock! Thank you!” before heading to her book-signing.

Be sure to check out Laurie Garrett’s website and twitter.