Preparing for the worst

At any given moment, a major infectious disease outbreak is happening somewhere in the world. Right now, highly pathogenic avian flu is spreading in China's Hunan province; the number of babies born with Zika-related birth defects has risen to 54 in the US and is in the thousands around the globe; and an illness that draws little media attention, chikungunya, has sickened at least 2 million people since 2013. On Thursday, April 13, three internationally acclaimed researchers – including the former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) – will scrutinize our current approach to emerging diseases, and discuss a new model for public health responses to disease crises.

Julie L. Gerberding, MD, MPH, Executive Vice President, Merck; former Director, CDC, will speak first on the problems with our current response to pandemics and infectious disease outbreaks. In her six years (2002-9) as director of the CDC, Dr. Gerberding guided the nation's leading health protection agency through more than 40 emergency responses to public health crises, including anthrax bioterrorism, SARS, and natural disasters. She joined CDC in 1998 as director of the Division of Healthcare Quality Promotion. It was her commanding response to the anthrax bioterrorism events in 2001 that led to her appointment as CDC director in July 2002. In her current position, she is responsible for Merck's global public policy, corporate responsibility and communications functions, as well as the Merck Foundation and the Merck for Mothers program. Gerberding is an elected member of both the National Academy of Medicine and the National Academy of Public Administration. In 2005, TIME magazine named her as one of the "100 Most Influential People in the World" for her leadership in modernizing CDC in the face of unprecedented health threats like bioterrorism and SARS. Gerberding also received the Surgeon General's Medallion, the highest honor bestowed by the US Public Health Service, for actions of exceptional achievement for the cause of public health and medicine.

Prof. Amy Kircher, DrPH, Director, Food Protection and Defense Institute (FPDI), University of Minnesota, will then offer commentary. FPDI, a research consortium of experts dedicated to protecting the food system, is a Department of Homeland Security Center of Excellence. Prior to coming to the University of Minnesota, Dr. Kircher held epidemiologist positions at NORAD – US Northern Command and with the US Air Force.

Prof. Michael T. Osterholm, PhD, MPH, Director, Center for Infectious Disease and Policy (CIDRAP), University of Minnesota, will moderate and join the discussion. Dr. Osterholm is an internationally recognized expert in infectious disease epidemiology. Prior to joining CIDRAP, during his 15 years as state epidemiologist at the Minnesota Department of Health, he led investigations into infectious disease outbreaks and strengthened the state's response to foodborne illness and other public health threats. From 2001-5, he served as a special advisor to

former D.H.H.S. Secretary Tommy Thompson on public health preparedness, including bioterrorism. He is a member of the National Academy of Medicine and the Council on Foreign Relations. His latest book (with Mark Olshaker) is "Deadliest Enemy: Our War Against Killer Germs" (Little, Brown; 2017).

In her talk, Dr. Gerberding will argue that while high-profile disease outbreaks grab headlines and provoke a reactive infusion of resources, such short-term investments fail to create the kind of robust systems that will achieve global health security. She will describe how science, government leadership, and social mobilization must work together if we are to achieve global health security and make an urgent case for health system transformation. She will then be joined by Drs. Kircher and Osterholm to analyze how such improvements can be achieved. The stakes couldn't be higher; as Dr. Gerberding reminds us, "The world is small," and we are all interdependent.

Interview topics include:

  • Emergency preparedness and infectious disease
  • Global health and climate change
  • Bioterrorism response
  • Vaccine development and deployment
  • Health care access in resource-limited countries and emerging markets

About the Consortium on Law and Values in Health, Environment & the Life Sciences

Since 2000, the University of Minnesota's Consortium on Law and Values in Health, Environment & the Life Sciences has conducted original research, served students and faculty, and advanced public dialogue and understanding on emerging issues at the intersection of science and society. Visit to learn more.


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