Dean’s Message: February 2015

February 1/2015

We have seen a remarkable rise of infectious diseases in the last year.  From the Ebola outbreak in West Africa to the resurgence of measles in North America, it is clear that public health education is crucial now more than ever.

One of the unique challenges about public health is we don’t always see it working.  We feel the power of medicine when we take a pill for a headache, but we don’t necessarily think about public health when brushing our teeth with fluoridised tap water or when participating in a bike sharing program.

Vaccination is the cornerstone of public health and there have always been ebbs and flows in the public’s perception of vaccines. In the pre-vaccine period, a disease afflicts and terrifies a society, much like diphtheria in the 1800s.  Once a vaccine is developed, society embraces the vaccine, even when it comes with risks. Fear of the disease itself outweighs the fear of vaccine-related issues.

But success breeds complacency and while many think that vaccines eradicate disease, they simply hold it at bay.  This work is invisible. Today we are seeing attitudes towards vaccines changing and a small subset of parents are declining to vaccine their children.

As a physician who has dedicated his career to public health, I know how crucial vaccines are to prevent devastating diseases, like measles and pertussis, and that developing a reliable Ebola vaccine is imperative to halting further devastation in West Africa, and protecting people all over the world.

Since these two issues have dominated the headlines in recent months, I’d like to take this opportunity to outline the School’s Ebola response effort, and communicate some key messages about measles.

The Dalla Lana School of Public Health community is deeply engaged in service activities, — from modelling and ethical framework building — education and research on Ebola and other infectious diseases.

With the increased interconnectedness and globalization of our world, the School plays a crucial role in reducing the impact of infectious diseases, including Ebola.  Several outstanding students formed an Ebola Working Group, supported by ProfessorsRoss Upshur, David Fisman and Dan Sellen as faculty leads, and I am tremendously proud of their accomplishments.

Two examples of success include spearheading the delivery of protective equipment to Sierra Leone hospitals (read more here) and organization of Lunch & Learn sessions to educate the greater community about the current Ebola outbreak.  Click here to visit the School’s Ebola webpage for more information and resources. I understand a myth-busting video is in the works as well so stay tuned for that.

In addition to the Ebola Working Group’s activities, the School also offers courses in infectious disease, including Professor Fisman’s communicable disease epidemiology course. We are exploring additional e-modules on the topic and collaborations with the Institute of Health Policy, Management and Evaluation, Pharmacy, Ecology, Engineering, among others, to expand infectious disease course offerings in the future.

Along with these student efforts, we also have several faculty members leading the Ebola response. Professors Upshur and Fisman, along with Robert Fowler from the Institute of Health Policy, Management and Evaluation, are leading the Ebola response at the international level.  Professor Upshur is a member of the World Health Organization (WHO) expert panel on Ebola ethics. Professor Fisman recently presented his work on Ebola forecasting at the WHO Ebola modeling meeting at the London School of Hygiene. And Professor Fowler, a critical care physician, has spent considerable time on the front lines in West Africa leading the Ebola clinical response.

Secondly, with respect to measles cases here in Toronto, I once again stress the importance of immunization. Toronto Public Health is actively communicating about the current measles outbreak, and I urge you to check your own vaccination records to ensure you have two doses of the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine.

All post-secondary students, regardless of date of birth, are recommended to have two doses of vaccine (such as MMR) to be considered up-to-date for measles vaccination status. Other adults born before 1970 are generally presumed to have natural immunity to measles, however, some of these individuals may be susceptible. As per the current publicly funded immunization schedule, regardless of date of birth, everyone is eligible for two doses of measles- containing vaccine based on their health care provider’s assessment.

For more information about measles and your vaccination status, visit Toronto Public Health’s website, which features important information about measles on the main page: www.toronto.ca/health.

Lastly, I would like to share an important resource for public health news that I encourage you to sign up for. The Public Health Learning and On-Line Education e-Bulletin, distributed by the Public Health Agency of Canada, shares public information relating to public health learning and on-line education. To sign-up, email andre.LaPrairie@phac-aspc.gc.ca.

Sincerely,

Howard Hu