Epidemic! The Natural History of Disease.  At the San Diego Natural History Museum

Exhibition Overview

View the Exhibition
by following the link on the American Museum of Natural History website.
The complex world of infectious disease can be very intimidating. Despite tremendous advances made in medicine, science, and technology in the past few decades, many mysteries still surround this ever-changing topic. In the exhibition Epidemic! The Natural History of Disease, learn how scientists work to solve some of these mysteries. Discern what is fact and fiction about infectious disease. Examine outbreaks from a natural history perspective, which incorporates scientific fact with what we know about evolution, ecology, and human culture. Gain insight into the intricate relationships between microbes and humans.

As the agents that cause infectious diseases, microbes are featured prominently in Epidemic!. Pictures, text panels, and colorful three-dimensional models of various microbes appear throughout the exhibition. One important message, however, is that most microbes are not harmful; in fact, some are necessary for human health. Microbes are present in our environment and in our bodies at all times, and most of them are not going to make us sick. Sometimes certain ecological changes allow normally harmless microbes to become pathogenic, but microbes themselves have many benign functions.

A view of the exhibition with three-dimensional models which help explain the spread of disease

Other important components of the exhibition include a section on infection, which explains how pathogenic microbes can enter the human body, how the immune system works to resist them, and how harmful microbes eventually leave the body. The exhibit section "Epidemic to Pandemic" investigates the ways in which urbanization, war, travel technology, and changes in the environment can cause the spread of infectious disease.

Not long ago, doctors thought they had conquered all germs. There were sophisticated microscopes to study them and powerful drugs to destroy them. But as this exhibition demonstrates, microbes--like all organisms--are constantly evolving, adapting, and changing their structure. That is why, despite tremendous advances in medicine, we have yet to discover the cure for the common cold, and why we should avoid the inappropriate use of antibiotics.

Other more dangerous diseases, such as tuberculosis, hepatitis C, and AIDS, are major problems right here in San Diego. The conclusion of the exhibition presents practical information about how to avoid infection and prevent the spread of infectious disease, infusing a positive note of hope and empowerment. A resource area provides literature and websites to delve deeper into this fascinating world.

Borrelia burgdorferi

The exhibition is divided into the following sections:

1. The Prologue
Through a short video, this introduction sets the stage for concepts to come, emphasizing the importance of understanding the natural history of infectious disease and learning how different cultures view and respond to illness.

2. Understanding Ecology
Hantavirus is an excellent example of how ecological change plays a role in outbreaks of infectious disease. In 1993, an increase in annual rainfall and a subsequent rise in the population of deer mice in the southwestern United States caused a hantavirus outbreak, because mice carry the virus and pass it to humans in aerosol form through their droppings. Through a diorama and video, learn how a natural history perspective enabled health officials to understand and contain the outbreak quickly and effectively.

3. Ecological Change and Evolution
This section highlights malaria in order to illustrate the dynamic competition between humans and microbes as they evolve and adapt to survive. Since microbes evolve much more rapidly than humans do, we need to develop ways to prevent infection. In the case of malaria, plant extracts prevent parasite infection, and protective clothing and mosquito nets help avoid mosquito bites. In places where malaria has been a problem for many years, some people have inherited genetic traits that make them less susceptible to the disease. Unfortunately, this genetic change can also cause another disease, sickle cell anemia.

4. Microbes
Here an array of colorful, three-dimensional models shows the astounding diversity of microbial life. Microbes are divided into viruses, bacteria, protists, fungi, and helminthes (worms). Learn about the different characteristics of these five types of microorganisms. Gain a better understanding of the natural history of microbes, and the ways in which many of them are beneficial.

5. The Study of Microbes
In this lab area with microscopes for hands-on discovery, learn how in 1674 Antoni Van Leeuwenhoek was the first to see a living microbe, using a magnifying glass. It wasnÕt until about 200 years later that another scientist, Louis Pasteur, realized that microbes could also be responsible for disease. Scientists in this century continue the discoveries with electron microscopes that magnify objects hundreds of thousands of times. Other techniques enable scientists to take microbes apart to understand their inner workings, and the newest methods involve examining the microbesÕ genetic sequence. The end of this section examines some of the other challenges in controlling infectious diseases, such as poverty, war, and resistance to antibiotics.

6. Infection
HIV virus How, where, and when do humans and microbes meet? This section shows several ways that microbes can enter the human body and illustrates ways the body protects itself. Discover the roles of macrophages, T cells, B cells, and memory cells. Identify parts of the body that play a role in defense. Discover how antibiotics and medicines work, and the purpose of a vaccine. Two dioramas in this section show HIV taking hold of a human T cell, and E. coli 0157:H7 in the intestines. Learn what is happening between the microbes and body defenses, and play a game in which one person takes the role of an invading microbe and the other the immune system.

7. Outbreak: Infection in a Local Population
Learn what an epidemiologist does to trace an outbreak. Find out how an infectious disease can spread through a population through contaminated water, food, and blood; through aerosols emitted from coughing and sneezing; through sexual contact; and through vectors (living creatures like mosquitoes and squirrels that transmit the disease by contact with people). Through an interactive display, play the role of an epidemiologist and investigate a mystery disease outbreak.

8. Epidemic to Pandemic: Global Spread of Infectious Disease
An epidemic is an outbreak of an acute illness that infects numerous individuals in a population by spreading rapidly among many people at the same time. When epidemics spread to diverse regions of the world, a pandemic results. In todayÕs global society, how do trade, travel, war, climate, and urbanization affect the spread of infectious disease? This section features a short video with newscasts from epidemics around the world, with maps highlighting regions where epidemics occur.

9. Taking Action: Individual, Community, and Global Solutions
This resource area of the exhibition focuses on success stories in the efforts to control infectious disease on the individual, community, and global levels. Through objects, text panels, photographs, and interactive displays, learn how to protect yourself from infectious disease, how to get help if you need it, and how to help others. Trained exhibit interpreters will guide you to brochures, websites, and additional resources.

10. Infectious Diseases in San Diego and Baja California: Past and Present
Go back 100 years in time and see how epidemics such as smallpox, influenza, and tuberculosis affected the San Diego area, including how Balboa Park was transformed during wartime to deal with infectious disease. Then get a dose of reality with the current epidemics facing San Diego and Baja California such as HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and hepatitis C. Learn what we can do to fight and prevent diseases, individually and as a community, and where to go to get proper assistance.

Giardia Banner microbe: Giardia intestinalis (protozoan causing diarrhea)
Others: Borrelia burgdorferi (the spirochete causing Lyme disease) and HIV (virus causing AIDS)
from the American Museum of Natural History Epidemic! exhibition

Epidemic! was created by the American Museum of Natural History with the support of Bristol-Myers Squibb Company. The San Diego exhibition is made possible by a generous title sponsorship from Alliance Healthcare Foundation, with a matching grant from The California Endowment, and generous support from additional sponsors and advisors.

Epidemic! | Exhibits