Sunday, April 26, 2009

Two TED talks

For anyone who hasn’t yet become addicted to TED—these two are a good place to start:


This award-winning talk by Dr. Larry Brilliant, who oversaw the last cases of smallpox in the world, discusses its eradication as well as remaining public health challenges such as blindness and pandemic flu.

Brilliant portrays Smallpox as an equalizer of sorts: being rich or strong “cannot protect you from dying of Smallpox…we are all in this together.” (However, we know this is not entirely, or at least not historically, true: during the American epidemic in the 17 and 1800’s, the wealthy, who could afford to be inoculated, often put the poor at risk from the disease). (According to Pox Americana).

One segment of the talk goes into the strategies his team used to eliminate the disease in India: they realized mass vaccination was beyond their abilities for the size and population of the country, and because more un-vaccinated babies would constantly be being born. Instead, they got a massive number of people to go door-to-door with the picture we saw in class, creating “circles of immunity” around each case they discovered.

Some families didn’t want to report Smallpox because they believed it meant (as we discussed in class) they were being visited by a God, and were not supposed to let strangers in while she was there. This was true in a number of countries.

Brilliant also discusses the great potential of web-based epidemic tracking systems—using webcrawlers and Internet searches for early detection of disease.


This talk by Nathan Wolfe, the head of the Global Viral Forecasting Initiative (GVFI), discusses identification of human diseases via monitoring of “viral chatter” in animal populations. He works specifically with bushmeat hunters in Cameroon. They frequently come into direct contact with animal (particularly primate) blood, and thus, if infected by an animal they kill, could make great “mixing vessels” for a new human virus. He believes that by monitoring this chatter we can prevent new pandemics before they start. HIs research so far has identified several new retroviruses and poxviruses in humans.

Wolfe is currently a visiting Humbio Professor at Stanford, and a really friendly guy (I and some other Smallpox students took his class fall quarter). I’m sure he’d be open to any student inquiries about his work (although he might be hard to reach)—his email is


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