Public Health School Dean Recounts SARS Scare

When an international SARS outbreak threatened the health of Harvard students and staff last year, University President Lawrence H. Summers called Barry R. Bloom for advice.

Summers wanted to know how to protect the Harvard community from the epidemic, which was spreading rapidly in China and had already infected several Americans.

Bloom, the dean of the School of Public Health (SPH), said in a speech Saturday that advising Summers about SARS was no easy task.

“Harvard University is 18,000 students packed in like sardines,” he said. “It’s a bloody epidemic waiting to happen. How do you protect the University and do the least to limit the freedom of individuals?”

Bloom’s description of Harvard’s own experience dealing with SARS was part of a larger discussion about epidemics and public health conducted Saturday in Science Center E.

To fend off infectious diseases and their economic repercussions, countries around the world must develop strong public health systems, Bloom told a small group of students.

“Investing in global health will protect every country from emerging diseases and save millions of lives,” he said.

His speech focused on health problems and care in developing nations, topics which Bloom—a former White House consultant and a member of the World Health Organization’s Advisory Committee on Health Research—regularly discusses with foreign governments.

Controlling infectious disease will be challenging, Bloom said, citing a number of statistics from the recent SARS outbreak.

If one person infected with SARS travelled into an uninfected area where members of the population regularly interacted with each other, Bloom said, 90 percent of the population would be infected with SARS in 100 days.

According to Bloom, health does not exist independently of other factors, and awareness of these other factors is important for disease prevention. SARS, AIDS and tuberculosis are all diseases that have economic as well as medical impacts, he said.  

SARS alone cost Canada $30 million per day, according to Bloom, and the cost to China was $16 billion to $30 billion.

But a long-term investment in public health around the world will prevent such expenses for future epidemics, said Bloom.

Bloom outlined a system for countries to follow when they are hit by epidemics like SARS or AIDS.

Governments should have plans in advance, fully disclose information about the epidemic, and give details to counter the threat posed by the disease. Treating the public as an ally in the face of an epidemic is essential, Bloom said.

“A good chunk of these burdens of disease are preventable by good public health,” he said.  

Public health experts predict SARS may re-emerge this year, and just last week leading SARS researchers met in Geneva to discuss developing a vaccine.

Bloom’s speech, “Evaluating SARS: The Threat of Infectious Disease in an Interdependent World,” was part of a weekend-long conference on global health organized by the Harvard International Relations Council.