Epidemics investigated at Smithsonian exhibition

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The public will get a better sense of the factors that contribute to infectious disease epidemics in a new exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. It includes the important work veterinarians and others do to prevent them.

Outbreak: Epidemics in a Connected World open through 2021

"Outbreak: Epidemics in a Connected World" opened May 18 and will remain on display for three years. The World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE), U.S. Agency for International Development's Predict Consortium, and other global partners collaborated to create the 4,250-square-foot exhibition.

"Understanding how we can prevent zoonotic viruses like Ebola, Zika, and influenza from emerging and spreading around the world ... is a critical science lesson for the 21st century," said Sabrina Sholts, PhD, a research anthropologist and lead curator of the exhibition, at its grand opening. The Smithsonian created the exhibition to mark the 100th anniversary of the great influenza epidemic of 1918, a pandemic that took the lives of 50 million to 100 million people—between 3 and 5 percent of the world's population at that time.

"Outbreak" is divided into the following four themes:

  • Outbreak origins—Visitors learn how diseases are transmitted from animals to humans and how environmental factors contribute to disease spread.
  • Stopping the spread—Factors that can decrease the risk of disease outbreaks are highlighted.
  • Detection, response, and containment—An introduction covers the variety and interaction of those working in many fields to identify and control the spread of potentially dangerous diseases.
  • Disease profiles—Visitors can learn about the occurrence, spread, treatment, and prevention of important zoonoses such as Ebola, tuberculosis, and influenza.

Drs. Jonathan Epstein and William B. Karesh are featured in quotes and photos throughout. Both veterinarians are members of the Ecohealth Alliance and travel the globe addressing veterinary issues, conducting research on zoonotic diseases, and promoting one-health issues.

Further, items from both the National Museum of Natural History and National Museum of American History collections illustrate the scientific and cultural impact of epidemics. The items on display include a teal duck specimen used to help identify the pathogen behind the 1918 influenza epidemic and a giant replica of an Aedes mosquito, the genus that carries Zika virus. In all, "Outbreak" is composed of 15 graphic panels that are available to reproduce on demand, according to the OIE. These graphics can be customized to a local context, enabling interested entities to reproduce the exhibition locally. Contact Audrey Chang at ChangAatsi [dot] edu (ChangA[at]si[dot]edu) about how it may be freely reproduced by interested parties.

This isn't the first Smithsonian exhibition featuring veterinarians. In 2013, the museum created the traveling exhibition "Animal Connections: Our Journey Together," which celebrated the human-animal bond. It premiered at the AVMA Annual Convention that year. The Association collaborated with the Smithsonian Institution on the exhibition to showcase the work of veterinarians and to mark the 150th anniversary of the AVMA.

Related JAVMA content:

Smithsonian exhibition shows veterinarians' roles (Sept. 1, 2013)

A showcase for veterinarians (July 1, 2013)