Top health professionals with different backgrounds and areas of expertise, including University of Michigan alumni, delivered lectures and participated in a panel Friday afternoon regarding infectious diseases and moderated by Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN Chief Medical Correspondent and neurosurgeon.

University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel delivered the opening remarks for the convention to over 300 people. Schlissel, who received a medical degree from John’s Hopkins University, understands the potential threat of an emerging infectious disease.

“The next pandemic is not a matter of if, but a matter of when,” Schlissel said.  

Dr. Anthony FauciDirector of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health, presented the 16th annual Horace W. Davenport Lecture. Fauci has served as a key adviser to the White House and the Department of Health and Human Services under five presidents.

His work at the NIH and with a range of presidents has taught him the importance and influence presidential involvement can have on controlling an outbreak, which he said will inevitably occur during a president’s term. Despite a canceled flight due to bad weather, Fauci delivered his lecture via video.

“If history has taught us anything, it’s that every administration is likely to experience an infectious disease crisis,” Fauci said.

Through his collaboration with presidential administrations, Fauci also noted the necessary elements to prevent and control an epidemic.

“We need global surveillance, transparency, infrastructure, clinical research cooperation and platforms for vaccines and drugs,” Fauci said, specifically emphasizing the need for a flu vaccine. “We’ve come to the time now where we must have a universal influenza vaccine.”  

Fauci ended his lecture by stating the title of a report he co-published nine years ago: “Emerging infections: a perpetual challenge.” He reasoned that, even in the medically advanced age of 2017, emerging infections and infectious diseases are still a “perpetual challenge.”

Dr. Paul Farmer, professor at Harvard University and co-founder and chief strategist of Partners in Health, was the keynote speaker for the 21st annual Robert Fekety Lecture.

Farmer drew on his experiences going abroad, specifically during the Ebola epidemic, to emphasize the importance of viewing serious illnesses and outbreaks from the point of view of the patient.

When he went to West Africa, Farmer noticed the shocking public health deserts, a term for places where minimal health infrastructures are in place. He also saw clinical deserts, meaning there were few caretakers available too, which contributed to the quick spread of Ebola, and the many resulting deaths.

“Liberia was a public health desert, which is why Ebola spread,” Farmer said. “It was also a clinical desert, which is why it killed.”

To prevent an outbreak like Ebola in the future, Farmer emphasized the need for sustainable health infrastructures that will balance public health, prevention and clinical care for treatment of patients.

“Responding to pandemics involves staff, stuff, space and systems for care as well as public health work,” he said. “We need to build academic medical centers in clinical deserts,” Farmer said. “We can’t just have public health fortresses.”    

The largest event on the convention agenda was a panel hosted by Gupta, featuring four health professionals with different areas of focus.  

Dr. Martin Cetron, director for the Division of Global Migration and Quarantine at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, set the tone for the conversation when he talked about the potential future of a pandemic.

“Outbreaks are inevitable, pandemics are optional,” he said, propelling the conversation into a discussion about pandemic preparedness and the role of the media in outbreaks.

Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, former director of the Detroit Health Department and University of Michigan alum, believes pandemic preparedness requires knowing when and how to start the process of taking action.

“Pandemic preparedness means being able to move information, people and supplies, and knowing when to set that in process,” he said.

The same difficulties health officials face with knowing how and when to categorize an epidemic as an outbreak applies to the media, according to New York Times reporter Donald McNeil. McNeil covers “plagues and pestilences” for the NYT and said the media has gotten better at knowing when it is appropriate to publish a story that will alert the world to a disease.

“You have to decide when to cover new outbreaks and when to drop everything else you’re doing,” McNeil said, also noting the media cannot always wait for the CDC or the World Health Organization to send out an alert.  

El-Sayed said these improvements in the media can help the public health community inform the world about a particular disease.

“Often, it’s hard for public health to act as it needs if there’s not media coverage of an issue,” El-Sayed said. “In an outbreak, communicate early and often, to everyone, and set values from the start.”

For Centron, the increasing threat of an influenza outbreak signals the crucial need for the development of an effective and responsive vaccine.

Dr. Eden Wells, chief medical executive for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, views effective communication about the importance of vaccines as especially crucial locally.

“Michigan is 43rd in completion rate for vaccines,” Wells said. “We need to make sure what we’re communicating is real.”

The speakers ended the panel on a hopeful note, talking about a positive development they have witnessed while working with infectious diseases. McNeil discussed the potential collaboration between people around the world as an opportunity for effective developments.

“The surveillance network is quite good around the world,” he said. “The question is what people will do with these networks.”

When the panel came to an end, the speakers circulated the crowd, answering questions and talking about their work. Dr. Sanjay Gupta generated a line with more than 20 students and health professionals.

When given the chance to speak with Gupta, he talked about the role young people can play given the growing threat of an emerging infectious disease during their lifetimes.

“I think that the same things that have really been making us more technically sophisticated and making us perhaps more protected against some of these potential outbreaks turning into pandemics, are also some of the things that could make those things worse because of globalization and people being able to get on planes,” he said.   

Due to our increased globalized world, especially social media, Gupta talked about the importance of young people thinking critically about the content they post and absorb.

“For younger people who are going to really be controlling the flow of that content, they’ve got to always just realize how valuable that is and take it very seriously,” Gupta said. “People are going to listen to them, and social media is so nascent right now, but I think in the next few years, people who are young and growing are going to have to make sure that the quality of that content is always the highest.”    

Kinesiology junior Ahad Bootwala attended the convention and emphasized in an email interview the importance of having speakers with different backgrounds.

“I loved the variety in the speakers’ backgrounds, since it offered different perspectives on how public health and infectious disease can be approached from political, environmental and personal standpoints,” Bootwala wrote.

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