January 18, 2000
Volume 52, No. 17
'Conversations' examines what to do about the real Y2K bugs
After celebrating the arrival of the new millennium with fireworks, champagne and noisemakers, it's time to contemplate weightier issues, such as, "What's bugging people?"
Scientists and researchers are hard at work to determine exactly which "millennium bugs" will be a threat in the new century. Will diseases once considered under control begin to re-emerge, infecting large numbers of people? Or will new diseases take center stage, here and in the developing world?
As part of its yearly series, "Conversations at The Carter Center," The Carter Center will hold a discussion Feb. 10 to explore these and other health issues. Don Hopkins, associate executive director of the center's health programs, will moderate the discussion on "Millennium Bugs: Fighting Diseases in 2000 and Beyond." The panel also will include Stephen Ostroff, associate director for epidemiologic science, National Center for Infectious Diseases, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC); and James Curran, dean of the School of Public Health.
Before joining The Carter Center, Hopkins served as assistant director for international health (19781984) and deputy director (19841987) of the CDC. His many contributions to public health include the Pulitzer Prize-nominated book, Princes and Peasants: Smallpox in History.
While technological advancements have helped eradication efforts considerably, Hopkins also acknowledges the negative aspects. "Modern science has made many vaccines easier and cheaper to use," he said. "However, the ability people have to travel further and faster worldwide, unfortunately, also increases the capacity to carry and spread diseases. It is therefore incumbent upon us to utilize new communication technology to share data and information."
The sharing of critical information was also a key component in the early 1980s, when the AIDS story first began to unfold. At the time, Curran was chief of the operational research branch of the CDC's venereal disease control division. Selected to head a task force looking into this strange new virus, Curran spent the next 14 years doing so, firmly establishing himself as an expert in tracking, analyzing and attempting to halt the spread of the disease.
"Just as research on cancer has assisted knowledge in HIV, now research in HIV-the treatment of opportunistic infections, for example-benefits many people who don't have HIV," Curran said. "The basic research on the immune system, how to manage patients with damaged immune systems, has led to breakthroughs in other areas."
Ostroff, a longtime public health expert, has been with the CDC since the mid-'80s. He has testified before Congress four times and given several presentations on emerging infectious diseases, including E. coli and new "superbugs," or drug-resistant bacteria. He recently served as the CDC's acting deputy director for science and public health, in addition to his role in the infectious diseases area. He asserts that capitalizing on advancing technologies will aid in the public health battle.
In times of crisis, Curran said, rapid responses to health threats are not only essential to sustaining life and calming the public's fears-they impact the public health field's credibility. "What is public health if we can't respond to emergencies of rare disease about which our health care system has no specific knowledge?" he said.
"Obviously, in the past 75 to 100 years, the public health threats have changed, as has our ability to deal with them," Curran continued. "Safe water supplies, adequate housing and advances in medical care have greatly changed both the priorities of public health and the ability to deal with the problems."
Nadara Wade is communications coordinator at The Carter Center.