Public Health at the Smithsonian

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There are so many museums to take advantage of in Washington, DC! One Sunday in November, I found myself at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History and was surprised and excited to see a public health related exhibit, Outbreak: Epidemics in a Connected World.

The exhibit starts with a short video introducing the concepts of globalization, One Health, epidemics, and pandemics. As visitors move through the exhibit, they learn about zoonotic diseases and how viruses are spread between animals and humans, with specific examples like bats and the Nipah virus; the exhibit addresses global travel's impact on the spread of diseases with a video showing the spread of SARS through international travel from China to Hong Kong to Toronto, and so on.

Exhibit materials cover epidemics and pandemics including Zika, smallpox, HIV/AIDS, Ebola, and pandemic influenza. Visitors learn about how humans drive disease emergence through industrial food production, animal trade, urbanization, and global travel; the exhibit documents how humans can fuel epidemics through migration, changing the physical environment (including human actions influencing climate change), and evolving animal husbandry (including the increased demand for animal protein); the exhibit also highlights methods to collectively lower the risk of spreading infectious diseases through hand washing, vaccinations, avoiding wild or dead animals, staying home and not traveling when sick, using antibiotics only when and how prescribed, disinfecting kitchens and bathrooms, practicing safer sex, and paying attention to information from local public health departments.

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In addition to these informational elements, the exhibit has multiple interactive elements for visitors. To me, the most exciting interactive element was the interprofessional activity. Three individuals sit down in front of individual screens and work together to prevent an epidemic. Each individual assumes a role from one of three fields: human health, animal health, and lab science. Roles that visitors can choose from include epidemiologist, lab coordinator, physician, wildlife ecologist, and field veterinarian. Once visitors have chosen their roles, they watch a short video explaining the scenario and receive a report on the situation. Through three missions, the individuals must work together to determine the disease, its cause, and how to prevent its spread.

I was so pleased to see an exhibit educating the public about important public health concepts. If you are in the DC Metro area, I would recommend setting aside time to experience the exhibit for yourself! The exhibit is scheduled to be available at the National Museum of Natural History through 2021. More information about the exhibit is available on the museum's website.

Written by Alexandra DiOrio, MPH