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What the Corona Virus outbreak can teach us about Public Health

The world’s first infodemic poses a huge challenge. And we must fight it with solidarity and compassion.
BY Skendha Singh |   18-02-2020

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“Together, we are facing #COVID19 & we must use the window of opportunity to intensify our preparedness for it. And more than ever it’s time to let science & evidence lead policy. If we don’t, we are headed down a dark path that leads nowhere but division and disharmony," Dr. Tedros (Director of WHO) on Twitter.

The emergence of COVID19 – official name for the Corona Virus outbreak, has underlined the urgent need for doing away with narrow walls around academic disciplines, or the exclusivist approach we have taken to human well-being.  

With little thought given to context, scientists have cautioned us for long, our economic policies are bound to create a nightmare for the planet. Whether it is the environment (think about the Amazon fires) or the animals perishing in the bush fires, or the disappearing coastal cities. COVID19 reads like the latest in a series of planetary alarms ringing out. What makes it central to our concerns is the direct impact on human health.

So BrainGain Magazine spoke to experts at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health, to understand the scope of the challenge we are facing, and how we can best respond.

For one, they counselled against the short-sightedness. Dr. David Fisman, Professor in the Division of Epidemiology at the School said, ‘Many emerging infections are appearing in the context of rapid urbanization, human encroachment on wilderness, and the use of wild animals as food. We need a more balanced and respectful approach to other living things on the planet, or we will pay the price.’

Dr. Kerry Bowman, Assistant Professor, Department of Community and Family Medicine added, ‘The wildlife trade and the commodification of wild species, as well as environmental destruction have all contributed to these emerging outbreaks. We need to do better in this area.’

To be effective, prevention, containment and cure cannot just be limited to humans. They must be part of a holistic strategy. Here is where the WHO's One Health approach comes in. According to Dr. Fisman, ‘Most emerging infectious disease (SARS, MERS, Nipah, influenza too) jump to humans from animals. "One Health" is the idea that human, animal and environmental health are interwoven. To solve these problems, we need to break down boundaries between disciplines. Veterinarians, human public health experts, environmental scientists all need to interact and share information.

This understanding has led to an evolution in the study of Public Health. The subject is no longer limited to medicine or epidemiology but also includes the study Artificial Intelligence & Statistics and Systems.

According to Dr. Bowman, ‘[The study of] Public health is evolving rapidly all over the world. One of the ways it is evolving is [by] taking a much more global perspective on outbreaks. There is no country on earth that can only focus on the protection of their own people’s health and safety, because of globalization. Public health is also now far more interdisciplinary, looking beyond biological factors to political, social and cultural factors.’

The Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto, for instance, prioritises meaningful collaboration across disciplines. It hosts research, training and service hubs like the Institute of Health, Policy, Management & Evaluation, Centre for Vaccine Preventable Diseases, Waakebiness – Bryce Institute for Indigenous Health, Joint Centre for Bioethics, and the Centre for Critical Qualitative Health Research.

So Public Health has seen a ‘blurring of the lines between epidemiology and other data-heavy disciplines, including computer science, economics, and geography. Computing power and the availability of genetic information (both on human populations and disease-causing microbes) is transforming how we understand health and disease.’ (Dr. Fisman)

Dalla Lana School of Public Health
Dalla Lana School of Public Health

Acoordingly, the curriculum is designed as a response to contemporary public health challenges. ‘Toronto has had direct experience with the SARS outbreak,’ said Dr. Bowman. ‘And as a result, many changes were made to public health protocols and awareness. That spills over into the School of Public Health. Students get to study real-life cases as they occurred right in the city of Toronto. The school also does a lot of social and epidemiological research related to emerging outbreaks. We are part of the global scholarship in these areas.

At the world's leading universities, the study and practice of Public Health is founded on multi disciplinary research, a clear vision of the inter-connectedness of each inhabitant of this planet, and a strong drive to inspire communication between research centers, think tanks, government departments and citizens. At the heart of this evolution is the understanding that for Public Health to exist, whether as a subject or an ideal, it has to be inclusive and comprehensive. Apart from the technological advances, this seems to be a key takeaway of the COVID19 outbreak - the need for comprehensive care.

To conclude in the words of Dr. Fisman, “Public health is a tough discipline: it gets political, and you deal with crises.  It's changing all the time so people in our field need to adapt and learn on the fly.  But at the end of the day you also need to care about the populations you're serving. Health risks tend to be greatest in disadvantaged populations, so you need to be compassionate to do this job.”




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