Irrational fear or irrational complacency: the need for science and health.
Article Type: Column
Subject: Virologists (Appreciation)
Virologists (Conferences, meetings and seminars)
Epidemics (United States)
Epidemics (Media coverage)
Epidemics (Control)
Needs assessment (Management)
Medical care (Needs assessment)
Medical care (Management)
Author: Moore, John
Pub Date: 11/01/2009
Publication: Name: The American Biology Teacher Publisher: National Association of Biology Teachers Audience: Academic; Professional Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Biological sciences; Education Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2009 National Association of Biology Teachers ISSN: 0002-7685
Issue: Date: Nov-Dec, 2009 Source Volume: 71 Source Issue: 9
Topic: Event Code: 290 Public affairs; 200 Management dynamics Computer Subject: Company business management
Persons: Named Person: Poland, Gregory; Poland, Gregory
Geographic: Geographic Scope: United States Geographic Code: 1USA United States
Accession Number: 246348909

It is my last letter to write this year as President of NABT. This issue of The American Biology Teacher is on Health and Medicine. What a teachable moment we are living in right now. Let me ask a question. What do the years 1918, 1957, 1968, and 2009 have in common? Many of you know that those dates are the years for the most pandemics in the U.S. and the world.

In 2006, Dr. Gregory Poland, Director of the Mayo Clinic's Vaccine Research Group, spoke to my non-majors biology class (in which his daughter was a student) on the avian flu. Dr. Poland is a leading expert in vaccinology and clinical research, and in the field of biodefense. He and his talk were mesmerizing. Why shouldn't they be? As Professor of Medicine and Infectious Diseases, Molecular Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics; Associate Chair for Research, Department of Medicine; 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 whenever he talks on anything relating to viruses. It was interesting that the local news media rushed to take video and questions after he spoke to the 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 "bird flu" (an H5N1 virus) and counseled the class that another pandemic would come. 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 very well was to make the non-major biology students aware of what efforts would have to be in place to combat the next pandemic. As he laid the groundwork for what could and would happen m the future, and the efforts that were needed to prepare the world for the next pandemic (whenever it came), he challenged the class with this question: "Is it irrational fear or irrational complacency that our country is in?" He described some of the steps necessary for the government, industry, medical community and the population to work together to be prepared. Dr. Poland was working with the U.S. government and World Health Organization to help influence a worldwide mechanism for dealing with pandemics; to move us out of what he called "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. The class was honored to be exposed to that level of information and to such a brilliant scientist and educator who provided the answers to their questions.

We are now in the midst of the latest pandemic and we do not know how it will fully play out in our country and the world. 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 five-month period, reached pandemic levels. Who knew it would be so soon that a test of that system would be taking place this year? If we listen to some media reports or some of the political discussion of the H1N1 virus, we begin to see how much we need to have scientists like Dr. Poland, who have the ability to merge the scientific community and its educational community together. People like Dr. Poland and like you, biology teachers, are able to help the people of this country and the world to understand what is happening so we can combat what he called an "irrational fear" that may be taking place.

My son and several of the students in my non-majors class this year have been hearing many discussions in the media and have had dorm discussions over the issue. As they listen to news reporters and media personalities provide information, it often comes in a sensationalistic form. Does this heighten our awareness or create an irrational fear? Because of the heightened publicity about the H1N1 pandemic, I am often asked by my students, "Would I get a flu shot this year? Should I stop eating pork? What is H1N1? Should we close school?" Statements are made during these question periods that demonstrate some of the confusion of my students. For example, "It hasn't been tested!" "It isn't dangerous so why should I need the shot?" "I have a cousin, a friend [or someone that they heard of] who the H1N1 and it wasn't bad at all." "I can't afford it." These statements are made because of lack of knowledge about viruses, the flu, and what is a pandemic. Students often strive to find information they can count on as reliable but only find or listen to anecdotal evidence that supports their biases and fears. Students, like the country, keep looking for individuals in whom they can trust to provide them with that understanding.

NABT and its members have much work to do to help students like these and the general populace understand how science and health are very much related. This is and will always be a continuing task for us as educators. Students need to be encouraged to go into the sciences, biology, and health professions. The U.S. government needs to direct efforts into this area of health care--the merge between the pharmaceutical community and the health system. If we examine the current system for developing vaccines, we find that it is an older system that has not changed much since it was 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 for H1N1. We need new students going into science and health who will be working on these areas in the future. We need educators who can help to teach these students and prepare them for future problems. We need scientists, health professionals, and educators (just like Dr. Poland) to help us maintain that level between "irrational fear and irrational complacency."

John Moore

NABT President--2009
Gale Copyright: Copyright 2009 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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