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Updated 11:30 AM December 6, 2004
 

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  Reframing Infectious Disease conference
Markel: Remember the things that kill people 'on a daily basis'

Diseases like SARS and anthrax grab headlines and the public's attention, but tuberculosis, AIDS and malaria are much greater killers.

"We don't think about the things that kill us on a daily basis," Dr. Howard Markel said during the Institute for the Humanities "Reframing Infectious Disease" international conference last week. "We spend a lot more time thinking about the sudden and the acute."

Markel spoke about topics addressed in his book, "When Germs Travel: Six Major Epidemics That Have Invaded America Since 1900 and the Fears They Have Unleashed." He discussed some of the ways that germs travel, particularly in a world with easy and quick travel across borders and oceans.

He recounted the story of a young woman who traveled from Seoul to Baltimore, and back. The woman had TB and died; during the course of her six flights, 29 other people contracted TB.

"Tuberculosis is public health enemy No. 1," he said.

He also told the story of four immigrants who had traveled from Rwanda to Detroit. Markel was asked to treat them when they had an outbreak of diarrhea, and he thought their symptoms sounded like cholera.

But it turned out that their disease hadn't come from their homeland; it was caused by a common ailment, not an imported disease. He said the incident taught him the importance of recognizing diseases in our own backyard.

Markel emphasized the importance of learning as much as possible about germs and focusing on their public health implications.

"We never really conquer germs but at best we can wrestle them to a draw," he said. But that can only happen with constant attention. "Our struggle against deadly microbes is essentially endless."

Markel is the George E. Wantz Professor of the History of Medicine, professor of pediatrics and communicable diseases, professor of history, professor of public health, and director of the Center for the History of Medicine.

The three-day event was underwritten by Richard A. and Susan Mayer. Cosponsers were the Institute for the Humanities, the International Institute, and the Life Sciences, Values and Society Program.

Members of the planning committee were Kristin Dunkle, Sioban Harlow, Nicholas B. King, Daniel Herwitz, Jonathan M. Metzl, Amy R. Sheon, Alexandra Minna Stern and Miriam Ticktin. Herwitz, director of the Institute for the Humanities, said many members of the Humanities staff worked hard throughout the past two years to make the event possible.

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