Global Health Special Series: Day 1 of the Princeton-Fung Global Forum

By Grace Masback

WANT Original Content

Unseasonably warm, sunny Dublin weather greeted day one of the Princeton-Fung Global Forum. Attendees from various academic, governmental, health, relief, and other organizations gathered in O’Reilly Hall at University College Dublin to discuss last year’s Ebola crisis and the topic of how to anticipate and deal with such crises in the future.

Princeton president, Christopher Eisgruber, greeted attendees, emphasized the importance of the gathering, and challenged them to focus on solutions to the vexing problems. Next, William Fung, the Forum’s namesake, stressed the severity of global health issues facing many communities around the world and detailed the responsibility of scientists, doctors, and average citizens to be aware of the issues and proactive in their movement against them. He left the crowd with four key questions to consider over the course of the conference: (1) Are plagues inevitable? (2) What are the causes of modern plagues? (3) How difficult or easy is it to contain epidemics? (4) How difficult or easy is it to contain epidemics?

Following Mr. Fung, Dr. Peter Piot, director of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, helped further set the agenda and outline the main themes of the conference. A microbiologist known for his research into Ebola and AIDS, Mr. Piot focused on the need for global collaboration to help tackle infectious disease, challenging participants to use their time together at the conference to discuss how to prevent future epidemics. He left the audience with an emphatic message, “Dealing with epidemics thousands of miles away is a global public good.”

During the first panel of the day, “The History of Plagues,” experts provided insight into how and where large-scale disease originates. Harvard professor of history and medicine, Mark Harrison, made sure to establish the limitations of historical analysis of disease emphasizing, “History does not create a clear blueprint for action, but it does teach you something useful about pandemics.” He observed that looking at historical trends, mortality rates, and the success of past treatment methods can benefit researchers to some degree but won’t provide the only answers. Princeton University researcher Keith Wailoo added, “Managing public concerns and fear about transmission is a crucial part of the public health effort.” This touched on the point that in both historical context and looking at the recent Ebola crisis, misinformation about disease led to unnecessary panic and caused people to act in ways that actually helped to facilitate the spread of disease.

Mary Robinson, the former president of Ireland, gave a lunchtime keynote address in which she emphasized that the right to health is paramount and that there was a profound lack of respect for human rights in Ebola-affected countries. The first afternoon panel discussed the “Science of Plagues” focusing on lessons learned since the Ebola outbreak. Powerful accounts from panelists Gabriel Fitzpatrick and Rebecca Levine on their experiences in the field helped animate the discussion. The day’s last panel, ”Disease and the Information Highway,” discussed how digital tools can be used to deal with plagues. Panelist Christopher Fabian highlighted the power of mobilizing young people to create and shape dialogue on Ebola using mobile technologies as part of the discussion of how to create early warning systems when disease breaks out.

The day’s final keynote was the director-general of the World Health Organization, Margaret Chan. Chan articulately shared her own ideas and opinions concerning global health and the Ebola crisis stating “Prior to the current outbreak, Ebola was a rare disease. Much about the disease was poorly understood.” She also discussed the importance of securing adequate funding in the face of global health disasters from governments, NGOs, and individual donors alike. “Money should be put to use for good reasons,” Chan stated, “Not for private bank accounts.” She ended her speech with a call to action, emphasizing to the Forum attendees that dealing with epidemics and infectious diseases will take time and effort, “Much more needs to be done. In particular, we need to understand more about viral persistence and how care for survivors.” Empirical evidence aside, for Chan one area of need was immensely clear, “We need to advocate for universal health coverage to make sure everyone’s health needs are addressed.”

Admonitions from Chan and other speakers on day one helped focus attention on several key issues. For example, there was a critical lack of funding for relief efforts for the most recent Ebola outbreak. Evidence indicates that individuals and governments are more likely to give money to relief efforts with which they feel a direct connection. In 2014, when UN Secretary General Bahn Ki Moon announced the need for $1 billion to curtail the spread of Ebola The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation donated over $8 million, but many Western governments did not do their part. The Gates Foundation donation was more than the combined donations of Canada, Germany and Spain. Although as of October 2014 $863 million had been raised, many saw these commitments as too little too late. Changing the donation-averse mentality is an important goal for all global health supporters.

Following the day’s events at the Forum, a group of Princeton students attending the conference, Richard J. Lu, Melody Z. Qiu, Colin Gilbert, and Saki Takashi, offered their reflections in a Google Hangout hosted by Rose Huber of Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School. Among their interesting insights was that, “The Forum provides great exposure to a diverse list of speakers and panelists. It is interesting to see how the theoretical issues we study at Princeton are put into the context of plagues in general and the Ebola crisis in particular.” The students also appreciated Margaret Chan’s speech saying, “Margaret Chan, the director-general of WHO, was very insightful in talking about her experiences in connection with Ebola and how her past work on SARS and other crises in Hong Kong informed her approach to Ebola.” Students saw the conference as a direct application of the work they were doing at Princeton.

Such reflections about the Forum emphasize the importance of student engagement in global health issues, demonstrating the efficacy of multi-disciplinary and experiential learning environments, particularly their ability to raise interesting challenges and ideas. Day two of the Forum should generate meaningful recommendations for dealing with future crises and identify how individuals and organizations can prepare to take coordinated, effective action.

Photo Credit: CDC Global

About Grace Masback

Grace Masback, 17, aspires to give voice to the voiceless and holds the modest ambition of becoming the voice of Gen Z. Frustrated by the dearth of impactful platforms for teen journalists, she founded WANT, a news, sports, and entertainment website that aggregates the best in high school journalism from school newspapers and teen bloggers around the world (www.wantnewsforteens.com).

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