At HUBweek, experts focus on global health threats

Professors Dyann Wirth, Ric Marlink, and Marc Lipsitch
Professors Dyann Wirth, Ric Marlink, and Marc Lipsitch

October 8, 2015 — The roots of the current Syrian crisis may be found in the massive drought that afflicted the country between 2006 and 2009 and precipitated a migration of more than 1 million people from rural to urban areas. According to Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health researchers speaking at an event during the inaugural HUBweek, the drought was likely caused by climate change — and the world should have predicted the conflict that followed.

HUBweek, a series of events celebrating “big ideas and bold solutions,” was held throughout Boston and Cambridge October 3–10, 2015. It is a first of its kind civic collaboration between The Boston Globe, MIT, Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard University. Harvard Chan School hosted a series of panels on October 5 at the Joseph B. Martin Conference Center highlighting four major global health threats: infectious diseases, harmful environments, humanitarian crises, and failing health systems.

Acting Dean David Hunter set the stage for the day’s panels by inviting the audience to imagine a world where AIDS is prevented by a vaccine, air pollution is less prevalent, humanitarian responders can do their jobs more safely, and disparities in health care based on income and race are eliminated. These are not dreams, he said, but rather are among the many efforts underway at the School to make the world a healthier place.

Flaminia Catteruccia, associate professor of immunology and infectious diseases, opened the first panel by highlighting the threat posed by a pest often underestimated in the Western world: the mosquito. While mosquito-borne diseases such as malaria don’t tend to grab international headlines, they have killed 12 million people since 2000, she said, and simply relying on bed nets and other methods to prevent stings is not enough. Catteruccia’s lab is studying mosquitoes’ biology, working toward the day when the insects can be genetically engineered to not pass on diseases to humans.

Success in the field of infectious diseases has the potential to save millions of lives, observed moderator Dyann Wirth, Richard Pearson Strong Professor of Infectious Diseases and chair of the Department of Immunology and Infectious Diseases. Ric Marlink, Bruce A. Beal, Robert L. Beal, and Alexander S. Beal Professor of the Practice of Public Health, said that success requires the ability to move beyond assumptions of what is possible —from “We can’t do that” to “What will it take?” Marlink recalled skeptics who believed that efforts to scale up AIDS treatment in Africa would be futile.

Professor Ichiro Kawachi and Center for Health and the Global Environment Associate Director Aaron Bernstein
Professor Ichiro Kawachi and Center for Health and the Global Environment Associate Director Aaron Bernstein

The day’s second panel, which focused on harmful environments, presented the environment as a complex web of influences that act on people’s biological processes and personal choices, from poor air quality to cigarettes sold at the corner store. Panelist Aaron Bernstein, associate director of the Center for Health and the Global Environment, said that climate change has the potential to affect all aspects of health, citing examples including the drought in Syria and Boston’s precarious position if sea levels rise. Actions taken to combat climate change, such as reducing carbon emissions and red meat consumption, will also make us healthier, he said.

Jennifer Leaning, François-Xavier Bagnoud Professor of the Practice of Health and Human Rights, spoke on the third panel about the need for the humanitarian community to get out in front of crises before they blow up. Panelist Jacqueline Bhabha, a professor at the FXB Center for Health and Human Rights, discussed the current Syrian migration to Europe and some of the challenges, including political opposition in some Western countries to accepting the refugees.

Researchers on the final panel stressed that health systems around the world are doing better than ever, although there remain significant failures. While Obamacare has improved access to care in the U.S., success can’t be sustained without improving quality, panelists said.

Amy Roeder

Photos: Emily Cuccarese