Preventing Worldwide Epidemics | Ronald K. St. John, MD, MPH | TEDxCincinnati



thank you very much good evening everybody let me ask you a quick question anybody in this audience did anybody take an international trip in the last year say yes thank you this is a little bit about you but all international traveler I'm a medical doctor and after my experiences as a Peace Corps doctor in the Philippines and in Bolivia I chose a career in public health specializing in infectious disease control things like epidemic outbreaks of disease vaccination program stuff like that and I started my career in the 70s at the CDC the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta which you may know about and I have dealt with epidemics some of which were actually started by international travelers and so tonight what I want to do is share some experiences that started me thinking about what can we do help travelers stay healthy while they travel and at the same time not become spreaders of disease and we need to be concerned about travelers a traveler inadvertently brought Zika virus to the Western Hemisphere and we now know for sure that this virus attacks the brain of the newborn or the fetus as it is developing and causes severe damage but interestingly also about 80% of the people that get infected with this virus don't know it because their symptoms are mild or not at all and so they can spread the disease for the mosquitoes mosquitoes spread the disease to others the same kind of problem can we do something about this yes and I'll come back to that now some people think that you can stop infectious disease at the border maybe by using some modern technology like this infrared scanner that detects people with fevers as they arrive in airports now that's a good it works a little bit but it won't stop them and the reason won't stop infectious disease and the reason is quite simple infectious diseases have incubation periods that's the time from when you become infected to the time when you become sick and during that time you feel well you look well you travel well you're undetectable and when you travel a mile traveling or when you get home you might inadvertently spread the virus or the or that you've been infected with so travelers can be spreaders or maybe not and I'll come back to that so let me tell you about some of my experiences then back in the 1980s I was the director of infectious disease control for the World Health Organization in the Americas and in night in June of 1982 some colleagues and friends from CDC in Atlanta called to tell me about five very sick young gay men in California as it turns out these were the first five cases of hiv/aids and you know the rest of the story we had a globe we have a global epidemic of this virus spread by people traveling around the world but the point I want to make also is that at that time there was no early alert system there was no way that we could know that there was a deadly virus violently spreading by travelers around the world let me fast-forward the mid nineties and another personal experience I was working now at the Canadian Department of Health in Ottawa and sitting in my office I happen to notice that CNN was showing live Headey footage of people fleeing the city of Sirat in India and oh why well because there was an epidemic of pneumonic plague in the city now pneumonic plague is the worst kind of plague you can get it spread easily by coughing and it causes a pneumonia that if it's not treated promptly its fatal in about 24 hours a bad problem but I thought pretty far away from Canada Sarat India about an hour later I got a call from the manager of Toronto's Pearson Airport who said ah by the way they watch TV in Toronto – he said there's an Air India flight that's going to be arriving in Toronto clear Pearson Airport in a couple of hours and the thirty thousand workers are going to walk off the job and go home because they were afraid that there's pneumonic plague onboard that Air India flight he said Ron we have to do something I said oh yeah yeah we do now this is a snapshot as I was hanging up the phone the staff took this shot of me trying to figure out what to do well I decided to send one of my best quarantine officers dr. Brian GU Sherlock to Toronto to try to get there before the Air India flight arrived and explained to people that it was really not possible for pneumonic plague beyond the Air India flight well he got there and he got there in time and he was able to persuade people to calm down and we averted an international incident but we scrambled to do that just like we scrambled after HIV so we started thinking can't we do can't we do better than that can't we find out some some way to get information about what's going on in the world with infectious diseases and so we can be better prepared just in case something happens become the Canada well our colleague and I put our heads together and we started thinking about this thing called an Internet and couldn't we get the information we were looking for on this new thing called the internet but well at that time a lot of you in the audience won't believe this but at that time was a very best search engine would take that was slow and would take about a whole month to scan the entire Internet one time but we needed information a lot faster than that and so we started thinking well what about that CNN what about newspapers that publish reports of epidemics in their local cities what about news wire services and so to cut the chase we created something called the global public health intelligence network G Phin or gphin for short now gphin was a very first computer-based system to monitor 24 hours a day the net worldwide news media and it worked and even today gphin still provides governments and organizations like WTO CDC with early alerts about what is happening around the world later on I thought he shouldn't the traveler have the same kind of information sitting the traveler have hourly alerts so they can stay healthy wherever they are and if there's a problem where they are maybe they can take some preventive measures simple things use your bug repellent whatever and maybe not get infected and maybe not become a carrier of disease now back to back to the traveler I hope you believe me when I say that problems can start epidemic this video you see behind me is a collage of 24 hours worth of global airplane flights this was in 2008 it's a lot more crowded now last year the IATA estimated that there were about 3 billion 3 billion passenger trips any one person getting one of these planes might starts the next epidemic and we humans we've been starting epidemic for a long time back in the 1300s travelers brought plague into Europe in the at the beginning of last century people took Spanish flu across the world and millions of people died and more recently we've had SARS we've had chikungunya and of course we have Zika can we do something about this I think we can the first thing is I think we can do something in the help of a traveler's avoid becoming spreaders of disease but how can we do that well I believe that we can give travelers the same kind of allure early alerts directly to the traveler so while they're abroad they can maybe take the necessary prevention measures they need to take but how can you deliver the information directly to the traveler well my son who's an engineer and I put our heads together and we created a company all satara now satara uses modern technology to span a hundreds of thousands of information sources in minutes and it uses some artificial intelligence who separate the things we're really interested in the critical information from background noise and then it delivers that information directly to the traveler through their mobile phone 24/7 the early alerts wherever they are free at no charge and that information if the traveler will pay attention will help them take the necessary prevention measures and not become the next spreader of disease I believe that modern technology can save lives and it will help travelers avoid starting the next epidemic and I sincerely hope that we can contribute to either preventing or at least minimizing the next global epidemics thanks very much for your attention you

1 Comment

  1. Proud to have worked for Dr St John at Heath Canada as his assistant. He is the best epidemiologist I know, is worth listening to him. He is brilliant!

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