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Mock Pandemic Flu Crisis Staged on Campus

November 3, 2008 – More than 30 graduate students from two courses – microbiology’s Social Perspectives on Biodefense and the Law Center’s Global Health Law – came together on Oct. 25 to help answer how the world health community should respond to a hypothetical outbreak of a deadly new influenza strain that had struck thousands, and made its way from rural villages of Thailand to Georgetown’s Washington, D.C. campus.

The mock crisis, sponsored by the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law, gave students the opportunity to play the parts of health, government and other officials from Thailand, the World Health Organization (WHO), the United States government, the District of Columbia and Georgetown University.

“Both classes have been working up to this big moment,” said Jeff Collmann, an associate professor at the School of Nursing and Health Studies, who teaches the microbiology course.

Collmann, who also serves as director of the O’Neill Institute’s Center for Disease Prevention and Health Outcomes, and Michael Stoto, professor of health systems administration at the School of Nursing and Health Studies, watched as the students went into their roles.

“I want you to stay in character,” instructed Stoto, who facilitated the daylong event, held in St. Mary’s Hall.

Chandra Lesniak (G’09), acting as Thailand’s minister of health, warned that the situation could be a “serious, serious problem” if the illness infected more people.

Reacting as the as minister of commerce, Katherine Andrus (L’11) expressed concern over the effect the outbreak could have on tourism and trade. “There is no need for overreaction at this point,” she said. “We support what the ministry of health is doing, but we also caution that we should not jump to any conclusions.”

As WHO director-general, Benn McGrady (L’09) argued that Thailand was obligated to report the epidemic under international health regulations.

“It’s a significant issue that (should) be reported immediately,” he said.

As the scope of the illness broadened, students faced increasingly difficult decisions, such as whether the WHO should be alerted; whether there were enough doctors, nurses and medication; how the legal rights of individuals would be protected; and whether people needed to be quarantined.

Professors agreed that the Saturday morning activity helped the students hone their skills and would eventually wind up helping the greater public once they graduate.

“We’re providing a service to the coming generation because these students are going to be the leaders when a real outbreak occurs,” said Lawrence Gostin, the O’Neill Professor of Global Health Law, who teaches the global health law course. “We’re training the next leaders to understand law, science, public health and ethics and also to apply them in a public emergency.”

 

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