The conversation: Usama Frieden

Dr. Frieden: “Given the progress we’ve made, I’m very optimistic that someday we’ll get to a point where one day, [SINGER DOOR,] one day you will tell your young adult what you are going to do for your life.” — CNN Breaking News (@cnnbrk) June 26, 2016

After the screening of a new documentary called Inside Omicron, the director Ken Burns and the medical director of the NIH’s Center for Cancer Prevention, Harold Wimmer, sat down with the producer of the film, Richard Leder, to talk about all things to do with potentially transmitted infectious diseases.

Wimmer: “Which health issue do you think is going to be about to blow up in our face [in the next 10 years], and which is going to be the one — whether it’s toxic wastes or whether it’s Zika or what have you — that you think is going to be what makes the next news because of the backlash against something?

There is no question Zika is such a tragic disease, so I think we’re absolutely going to see Zika. We’re already seeing reports of microcephaly in Latin America because of Zika. The question is, is this just a temporary crisis and then Zika will fade away, or will it reemerge? I think the other one is MERS. If we do not get really good and effective vaccines for that, all of a sudden it’s going to explode in a big, big way. Ebola has been extremely disruptive — the fact that we’ve learned so much and the steps we’ve taken to prevent it from coming here is very important. I think the one that is most contentious, of course, is SARS. It was a plague and we did learn very well how to react in time and at the time we were not aware that SARS had been in Europe before this but we had not found out until six months into the epidemic, so we are still learning a lot about the airborne diseases that come in at the top layer, the ones that have not yet been detected, including other infections that may be much more dangerous and contagious than SARS.

Is there anything we are totally not able to see coming?

Wimmer: Absolutely, we certainly do not know where SARS came from, so there is something we are absolutely not prepared for, and it’s scary to say that but there is a real possibility that something in our own country or other countries is going to come through with a new coronavirus. They have not yet caught the A/H1N1 virus from animals, so that is scary. The same is true for H1N1 swine flu. I’m afraid there is some hospital out there in some school, some public place, on campuses or in workplaces that have been victimized by a new virus and we will have to deal with it. Even at a high risk level, the question is: Is the infrastructure in place, has it got the right protocols, is there the right awareness and the appropriate staff? If it’s a coronavirus, well, you can’t prevent that, and if it’s something different, that’s even worse.”

Singer: “Just going over what was just said, it’s a part of a larger epidemic issue we should talk about. If you want to see the next generation of communicable disease outbreak[s], look at the Middle East. There are countries right in the middle of the desert, where almost anybody can go and so you have infections. Of course the Egyptian health system is very stretched. Is it possible we could get such an outbreak here? Is it conceivable that the Egyptian health system would be able to handle a flu outbreak, for example, if we have it?”

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