Outbreaks and Epidemics: The Role of Public Health

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U.S. National Library of Medicine poster

(U.S. National Library of Medicine)

You know you’ve made it when you get parodied on Saturday Night Live … by none other than Brad Pitt. And you really know you’ve made it when Pitt breaks character to thank you for your service. That was an honor recently bestowed upon Anthony Fauci, America’s bespectacled top infectious disease physician, who’s achieved rock star levels of fame in recent weeks. Usually, though, public health officials have much lower profiles. They’re behind-the-scenes thinkers and doers, who help keep their communities healthy with initiatives like traffic safety, vaccinations, and fluoridated water. In the best of times, we don’t even know they’re there — but during disease outbreaks, their work kicks into high gear.

So how did this field get its start? And what can we learn from past crises, starting with the yellow fever outbreak of 1793, through the AIDS epidemic, into the present? In this episode, we hear stories about the origins of public health; how the 1918 flu pandemic shaped the modern bathroom; and how schools and public health became a power couple.

Also heard on this week’s episode:

  • We explore the very beginnings of public health in America by telling the story of the yellow fever epidemic of 1793, which ravaged the young nation’s capital.
  • What lessons can we learn from America’s last major epidemic — HIV/AIDS? We ask Carlos Del Rio, a professor of medicine and global health at Emory University, about how public health approaches shaped the HIV epidemic, and vice versa.
  • Public health expert Alison Buttenheim from the University of Pennsylvania explains why the core of her job is to make it seem like nothing’s happened.
  • We listen to The Crossing, a professional chamber choir in Philadelphia, performing “Protect Yourself from Infection” — a new piece that was commissioned by the Mütter Museum for its 2019 exhibit “Spit Spreads Death,” a commemoration of the Spanish Flu pandemic. The music was composed by David Lang, and the lyrics are word-for-word transcriptions of advice from a U.S. government health manual from 1918.
  • During the coronavirus outbreak, we’re constantly hearing about the importance of washing our hands and keeping surfaces clean. A little more than 100 years ago, this same concern over cleanliness emerged during the 1918 flu pandemic. Architect David Feldman joins us to discuss how this past pandemic helped to shape our homes — especially the bathroom.

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