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

Exhibit Organization

The exhibition is divided into the following sections:

1. The Prologue
This introduction to the exhibition includes a panel and a short video that set the stage for the stories and concepts to come. The importance of understanding the natural history of infectious disease and learning how different cultures view and respond to illness are two of the main points.

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. The mice carry the virus and pass it to humans in aerosol form through their droppings. You'll see a diorama of a tool shed with a figure and several objects in it. How can people stop hantavirus from spreading? Watch the three-minute video about the ecology surrounding the outbreak.

3. Ecological Change and Evolution
This section highlights malaria in order to illustrate the struggle between humans and microbes as they evolve and adapt to survive. This competition is a constant dynamic in the world of infectious disease. Since microbes evolve much more rapidly than humans do, we need to develop ways to prevent infection. In the case of malaria, we can use plant extracts to prevent parasite infection, and wear protective clothing and use mosquito nets to 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
As you enter this section, an array of colorful, three-dimensional models shows the astounding diversity of microbial life. Microbes are divided into five types: viruses, bacteria, protozoa, fungi, and helminths (worms). Students can learn about the different characteristics of these five types of microorganisms. They will also 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
This section explains how the invention of the microscope eventually led to the discovery that microbes cause disease. A microscope is simply a device with one or more lenses that magnifies an object so it can be seen more clearly. In 1674, Antoni Van Leeuwenhoek was the first person to see a living microbe, using a magnifying glass. It wasnąt until about 200 years later that another scientist, Louis Pasteur, realized that microbes could also be responsible for diseases.

Scientists in this century continue to make important discoveries about microbes and disease. Electron microscopes allow scientists to magnify objects hundreds of thousands of times. Other techniques allow them to take microbes apart to understand their inner workings, and the newest methods involve examining the genetic sequence of microbes. 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. What are the points of entry? It also shows ways the body protects itself. What are the roles of macrophages, T cells, B cells, and memory cells? Ask students to identify the parts of the body that play a role in defense. Discover how antibiotics and medicines work. What is the purpose of a vaccine?

There are two dioramas in this section -- one shows HIV taking hold of a human T cell, and the other shows E. coli 0157:H7 in the intestines. What is happening between the microbes and the body defenses in these dioramas? There are also interactives here, including a two-player game in which one person plays the 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). An interactive screen allows students to act as epidemiologists and investigate a mystery disease outbreak.

8. Epidemic to Pandemic: Global Spread of Infectious Disease
What is an epidemic? What is a pandemic? How do trade, travel, war, climate, and urbanization affect the spread of infectious disease? This section addresses these and other questions. It features a short video with newscasts from epidemics around the world and maps highlighting regions where epidemics occur.

9. Taking Action: Individual, Community, & Global Solutions
The resource area of the exhibition focuses on success stories in the efforts to control infectious disease on the individual, community, and global levels. Using display objects, text panels, photographs and interactives, this section demonstrates a variety of possible solutions and activities to encourage students and adults to get involved. Informational brochures, Websites, and other resources will be available.

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 epidemics. 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.

As you move through the exhibition, you may also wish to take advantage of the trained interpreters stationed throughout to help answer questions and facilitate discussions.

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Background Information

Banner microbe: Adenovirus (virus causing common cold) and model of HIV (virus causing AIDS)
from the American Museum of Natural History Epidemic! exhibition

Teacher's Guide | Epidemic! | Exhibits