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ISSUE 118 VOL 20 PUBLISHED 5/13/2005

Symposium examines diseases

By Aaron Johansen
Staff Writer

Friday, May 13, 2005

On Friday, the sixth annual Honors Day Science Symposium celebrated contributions to research in the natural sciences and mathematics. This year’s topic, "Emerging Infectious Diseases: The Unseen Threat," featured three experts on diseases and drew a large crowd that filled the science center auditorium.

The first speaker, Robin Bush, assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of California at Irvine, presented "Influenza: Our Best Model for the Evolutionary Origin of Newly Emerging Disease."

Bush said that, though the influenza virus is relatively simple genetically, each year it changes the way it binds to other cells and thereby has the ability to bypass our immune defenses. By studying how the virus changes each year, scientists are quickly realizing that relatively little is known about the genetics of transmission. The very characteristic that made the deadly flu virus of 1918 different from today’s common flu is still unknown.

"Little is known about diseases today and how exactly they evolve to continually cause human sickness," Bush said. "It’s most important for scientists in all fields to not only combat and study today’s viruses, but to also reconstruct past causes in order to understand what is changing."

The second speaker, James Childress, addressed the human psychological response to a possible viral outbreak. In "Just Care: Rationing in a Public Health Crises,” the Hollingsworth Professor of Ethics and Professor of Medical Education at the University of Virginia discussed the morals and ethics that must be considered when limited resources are available under a crisis situation. He mentioned that plans for rationing in case of a possible crisis, must have significant public participation to guarantee civil order when actual rationing occurs. Balancing between the probability of success and medical needs of all individuals, and managing a distribution system that is deemed "fair" is also crucial.

"Given the threats we face from biological agents—whether released by terrorists or emerging naturally—we need society to develop a fair and just criteria for rationing scarce vaccines and prophylactic treatments before it is too late to secure public trust and cooperation," Childress said.

Keeping with the theme of viruses and their effects on humanity, the third and most prominent speaker, Michael Osterholm, Minnesota state epidemiologist, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy and associate director of the Department of Homeland Security’s National Center for Food Production and Defense, presented "Emerging Infectious Diseases: The New Normal," which discussed the consequences of a rapidly growing world population.

With today’s technology, Osterholm explained, humans and recourses are circulating throughout the globe at an exponentially growing rate. This growth, combined with the living conditions in developing countries today, makes the threat of viral infections much greater.

"There are more contributing factors to infectious diseases today than there ever have been," Osterholm said. The battle today is between human ingenuity and the efficient Darwinian evolution of the infectious diseases, he explained.

The symposium seemed to garner a lot of interest from students and was well-attended. "In the midst of all of the global issues that are taking up our time, it was nice hearing information on how we, as a country, can learn to better ourselves internally," Brett Kistner '08 said.

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