‘Outbreak’ exhibition connects world in fight against disease

From the Zika virus in Brazil to the Ebola in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Dr. Daniel Lucey of Georgetown University has been on the front lines of some of the most recent global outbreaks and knows how quickly diseases can spread.

He also knows how the health of people, animals and their environments are all connected. That’s the focus of a new exhibition he helped sponsor, called “Outbreak: Epidemics in a Connected World,” underway at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington.

The exhibition features epidemics that most people have heard about, from influenza to HIV/AIDS, but also some new ones, such as the Nipah virus.

A centerpiece of the exhibition is an interactive game that simulates a One Health response in which players take on different roles — a veterinarian, a lab technician and an epidemiologist — to fight against a fictional outbreak. “That’s what it’s all about,” says Lucey. “Working together, synergy of strengths. It’s what … we need to do to prepare better, respond better and recover better.”

Two men and a woman leaning over an interactive map (D.A. Peterson/State Dept)
The State Department invited three health experts to tour the “Outbreak” exhibition at the Smithsonian. Left to right: Roberto Carlos Angüis Fuster, Phan Thi Huong and Deepak Saxena. (D.A. Peterson/State Dept.)

Dr. Deepak Saxena, a physician from India, toured the exhibition at the close of a weeklong exchange organized by the U.S. Department of State. “Until you see this issue in its completeness, you won’t get it fully,” says Saxena, a promoter of the One Health approach when he trains health-care workers across Gujarat, India’s westernmost state.

For Roberto Carlos Angüis Fuster, who is a communications specialist for Zika prevention with CARE Perú, “the biggest challenge is social and behavioral change.” He says simple steps, like not allowing stagnant water to build up near homes in the rainy season, go a long way toward preventing the spread of mosquito-borne illnesses. He uses social media to connect dozens of youth-centered organizations in Peru and Ecuador on Zika eradication. The hard part is getting people to act on this knowledge, he says.

Phan Thi Huong, who works on communicable disease control and prevention for Vietnam’s Ministry of Health, agrees. Every year on Asian Dengue Day, Phan organizes a nationwide campaign with local health authorities to eradicate mosquito larvae from homes. “We do activities yearly,” she says. “We need to find new ways to communicate with people to change behavior.”

The Smithsonian’s “Outbreak” exhibition could be an option. It was designed in such a way that virtually anyone in the world can request print-on-demand files to set up their own version of the exhibition to educate their community. “You can customize it to talk about bacteria or parasites or translate it into your own language,” says Lucey.

Three large posters displayed under lights (Mikko Myllykoski/Heureka)
A portable version of “Outbreak” is seen at the museum in Vantaa, Finland. (Mikko Myllykoski/Heureka)

The Smithsonian has already received more than 100 requests for exhibition kits from hospitals, schools and museums around the world, says Kerri Dean, who oversees the Smithsonian’s DIY, or Do It Yourself, program. She says the museum is thrilled to see DIY exhibits going up in places like Iraq, Yemen and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where conflict makes outbreaks more likely and more difficult to treat.

Ironically, the Smithsonian is happy to see “Outbreak” spread. “It’s spreading,” says Dean, “and I’m very happy to see it spread because this is important information that can save lives.”