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

Exhibit Overview for Teachers

The complex world of infectious disease can be very intimidating to adults and children alike. Despite tremendous advances made in medicine, science, and technology in the past few decades, there are still many mysteries to be solved when it comes to this ever-changing topic. In the exhibition Epidemic! The Natural History of Disease, students will have an opportunity to learn how scientists work to solve some of these mysteries, and will be able to look for clues and do some investigating on their own.

With this exhibition, the San Diego Natural History Museum hopes to address the concerns of individuals and communities by providing them with scientific information and dispelling some of the myths about infectious disease. The subject is examined from a natural history perspective, which incorporates scientific fact with what we know about evolution, ecology, and human culture, yielding a comprehensive view of infectious disease and offering insight into the relationships between microorganisms and humans.

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

The 1993 hantavirus outbreak in the southwestern United States, illustrated in the exhibition, provides a good example of how a natural history perspective enables health officials to understand and contain an outbreak of infectious disease quickly and effectively. Scientific testing, knowledge of historical outbreaks, cultural understanding, and awareness of changes in the local environment were all important factors in solving the mystery of this disease.

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, and 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.

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. There is also a section called "Epidemic to Pandemic," which 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.

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Exhibit Organization

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

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