“Irrational Fear” or “Irrational Complacency” Science and Health; Myth Busters

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As an educator I would like to ask a question. What do the years 1918, 1957, 1968 and 2009 have in common? Many of you know that those dates the most recorded years of Pandemics in the US and world. In 2006 Dr. Gregory Poland the director of the Mayo Clinic’s Vaccine Research Group, a leading national and international expert in the field of vaccinology and clinical research, and a leading expert in the field of biodefense spoke in my non-majors biology class on the Avian Flu in which his daughter was a student. He and his talk were memorizing. As professor of medicine and infectious diseases and molecular pharmacology and experimental therapeutics, the associate chair for research for the department of medicine, the director of the Immunization Clinic and the Program in Translational Immunovirology and Biodefense at the Mayo Clinic (whew, what a long title) he carries a lot of authority when he talks on anything that deals with viruses. It was interesting that the local news media rushed to take video and questions after my class.

Dr. Poland lectured on the Avian Flu and kept the students on the edge of their seats as he weaved the current information about the virus and warned the class that a pandemic was emanate. NO! He did not say the Avian Flu was a pandemic. That would be in error. NO! He wasn’t saying the “Bird Flu” was going to be the next pandemic. That would be creating fear. What Dr. Poland was able to accomplish, and done very well, was make these non-majors aware of what efforts would have to be in place to combat the next pandemic. He challenged the class with this question, Is it “Irrational Fear” or “Irrational Complacency” as he laid the ground for what could and would happen in the future and the efforts that were needed to prepare the world for the next pandemic, when ever it came. He described how the government, industry, medical community and the populations would have to work together to be prepared. In 2007 Dr. Poland was working with the US government and World Health Organization to help influence a worldwide mechanism for dealing with pandemics; to move us out of ”Irrational Complacency.” His passion was evident in his talk that the world needed to coordinate its efforts to combat the next viral pandemic, whenever it came.

Who knew it would be so soon that a test of that system would take place this year. His words could not have been more prophetic as it was only two years later that the H1N1 virus emerged out of a town in Mexico and within a 5-month period reach pandemic levels. We are now in the midst of this latest pandemic and we do not know how it will fully play out in our country and the world. If we listen to come media reports or some of the political discussion of the H1N1 virus, we begin to see how much we need the scientific community and its educational wing to help the people of this country and the world to understand what is happening so we can combat the “Irrational fear” that may be taking place. My son and several of the students in my non-majors class this year have been listening to many of these discussions on talk radio and have heard them within the dorm discussions. They listen to news reporters and media personalities provide information to them, often it is meant to be sensational in nature. Because of this I am often asked, “would I get a flu shot this year? Should I stop eating pork?” Statements are made like, “it hasn’t been tested! I have a cousin, a friend, or someone that they heard of that got the H1N1 and it wasn’t bad at all.” Students strive to find information that they can count on as reliable but often only listen to anecdotal evidence that supports their biases and fears. Often it is from sources that they have heard their parents listen to or their teachers provide. They keep looking for individuals in whom they can trust to provide them with that understanding.

Science educators have much work to do in our society to help students like these and the general populace understand how Science and Health are very much related. This is a continual task for us as educators. We also need for us to encourage our students and those individuals we still have influence to go into those fields. It is still so important. If we examine the system for developing Vaccines w find out that it is an older system and has not changed much since the methods were first put in place. We have seen this year that this system has not been as effective (getting it to the population) in producing the vaccine. There needs to be an effort by the U.S government to direct efforts into this area of health care, the merge between the pharmaceutical community and the health system. We need new students going into science and health who will be working on these areas in the future. We need educators that can help to teach these students and prepare them for future problems coming before us.

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