In­fec­tious dis­eases ex­hibit spreads hor­ror and hope

‘Out­break’ opens on cen­ten­nial of flu pan­demic

The Washington Times Daily - - METRO - BY LAURA KELLY

The new­est ex­hibit at the Na­tional Mu­seum of Nat­u­ral His­tory is, in a word, ter­ri­fy­ing.

Ebola, Zika, HIV and SARS are just some of the in­fec­tious dis­eases high­lighted in “Out­break: Epi­demics in a Con­nected World,” where visi­tors con­front con­di­tions that fuel out­breaks and learn about ex­tra­or­di­nary efforts to save lives.

From the ceil­ing hangs a gi­ant mos­quito, a not-so­sub­tle re­minder of the in­sect that has af­fected the world by spread­ing Zika, dengue, yel­low fever, chikun­gunya, West Nile virus and other dan­ger­ous dis­eases.

Other col­lec­tions show ticks, fleas, bugs and stuffed bats. An al­co­hol-pickled duck from 1916 is known to have car­ried the same ge­netic se­quence of in­fluenza A found in those who suf­fered from the 1918 flu pan­demic.

In an­other dis­play, a man­nequin dressed in a chem­i­cal pro­tec­tive suit is used as a stand-in for med­i­cal work­ers who re­sponded to the 2014 Ebola out­break in West Africa. A re­ported 881 work­ers con­tracted the dis­ease while treat­ing tens of thou­sands of Africans. More than 11,300 peo­ple died.

“The pre­sen­ta­tion in this hall of­fers a stark demon­stra­tion of hu­man suf­fer­ing that in­fec­tious dis­eases have brought on com­mu­ni­ties through­out the world,” mu­seum di­rec­tor Kirk John­son said Wed­nes­day dur­ing a pre­view of the ex­hibit. “None­the­less, there are mes­sages of hope and en­cour­age­ment. … It is im­por­tant that we show how we meet the chal­lenges pre­sented by epi­demics and pan­demics.”

Open­ing Fri­day, the ex­hibit marks the 100th an­niver­sary of the great in­fluenza pan­demic, which took the lives of 50 mil­lion to 100 mil­lion peo­ple around the world, about 3 per­cent to 5 per­cent of the global pop­u­la­tion.

“It kept peo­ple apart,” says a quote from Wil­liam Sardo Jr., who was 6 at the time. “There was an aura of con­stant fear that you lived through from get­ting up in the morn­ing to go­ing to bed at night.”

The ex­hibit will be open for three years, and the mu­seum es­ti­mates it will re­ceive nearly 10 mil­lion visi­tors. Its over­ar­ch­ing theme con­nects the health of an­i­mals, hu­mans and the en­vi­ron­ment, and shows how they can in­flame or over­come an out­break.

A key con­trib­u­tor to the dis­plays on dis­eases and med­i­cal in­ter­ven­tions is Dr. An­thony Fauci, head of the Na­tional In­sti­tute of Al­lergy and In­fec­tious Dis­eases, whose early work with HIV car­ri­ers cre­ated a tem­plate for how vi­ral in­fec­tions are un­der­stood and treated to­day.

In open­ing re­marks at the mu­seum Wed­nes­day, he said the ex­hibit seemed like a dream look­ing back on his life’s work.

“It started off with HIV, which 37 years now I’ve been in­volved in HIV, and then look­ing around it is such a re­mark­ably ac­cu­rate evo­lu­tion of emerg­ing and re-emerg­ing in­fec­tious dis­eases,” Dr. Fauci said.

The ex­hibit traces the mys­te­ri­ous emer­gence of an ill­ness killing gay men across the U.S. in the 1980s and the bat­tle for pub­lic opin­ion to rec­og­nize the im­pact of AIDS and the need for a large-scale re­sponse.

Dr. Fauci and col­leagues iden­ti­fied HIV and de­vel­oped an­tiretro­vi­ral treat­ments that im­proved life ex­pectancy rates for those in­fected. Peo­ple ini­tially were dy­ing of AIDS within one year of in­fec­tion; to­day, they can live for decades.

The study of how the im­mune sys­tem re­sponds to HIV has been in­stru­men­tal in de­vel­op­ing vac­cines: A uni­ver­sal flu vac­cine is un­der­go­ing hu­man tri­als.

“We have the science for it. We know what to do,” Dr. Fauci said. “Now we have to get it done.”

The in­fec­tious dis­eases ex­hibit joins the mu­seum’s col­lec­tion of more than 145 mil­lion other ob­jects from the world of nat­u­ral his­tory, in­clud­ing di­nosaur fos­sils, pre­cious gems and cul­tural ar­ti­facts.


At the dis­play on Ebola, mu­seum di­rec­tor Kirk John­son said, “The pre­sen­ta­tion in this hall of­fers a stark demon­stra­tion of hu­man suf­fer­ing that in­fec­tious dis­eases have brought on com­mu­ni­ties through­out the world.”


“Out­break: Epi­demics in a Con­nected World” opens Fri­day at the Na­tional Mu­seum of Nat­u­ral His­tory.

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