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Nick Kelley

Nick Kelley was among 18 University of Minnesota students who attended the second "Business Preparedness for Pandemic Influenza" national summit in Florida as part of a School of Public Health spring course.

Learning beyond the books

School of Public Health students take part in national summit on pandemic flu

By Kris Stouffer

Feb. 20, 2007

Students in the School of Public Health's Emerging Infectious Diseases course started spring semester like most others. There was the usual round of readings, lectures, and quizzes. But three weeks into the semester their student experience took an extraordinary turn. They flew to Florida. They dined with CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. They got career advice from Madeleine Albright.

The 18 students had become a part of the Business Preparedness for Pandemic Influenza second national summit. The invitation to join this gathering of national and international leaders came from their professor, Michael Osterholm, an internationally known expert on infectious disease.

From appearances on CNN and Oprah to testimonies before Congress, Osterholm has been calling for the world to prepare for history's next influenza outbreak. He directs a team of experts at the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP), which has become a go-to source as business and government grapple with the complex issues of pandemic preparedness.

CIDRAP delivered some big names at the Orlando summit. Margaret Chan, director-general of the World Health Organization, spoke via videotape on the inherent global nature of pan flu. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control director, Julie Gerberding, challenged business to stay focused on the "marathon" of preparing. Former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright called the summit "a true national service" and said "hope is not a strategy" when dealing with potential catastrophes.

In a meeting with the students before her keynote address, Albright encouraged the group to consider new career options. "If ever there was an issue that is transnational and global, it's public health," she said. "Think about a career in diplomacy--we need experts."

The students (who worked at the summit to cover travel and registration costs) witnessed corporate executives debating pandemic issues rarely talked about in public-health classrooms. How would businesses get critical supplies like masks, drugs and food out? What if half of the workforce fell ill? Would the Internet function? What would the legal implications be?

CIDRAP

The Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota is an internationally recognized source for addressing the most pressing infectious disease issues of our time. Established just one week before Sept. 11, 2001, CIDRAP has, from the beginning, made public health preparedness a major focus.

Both public- and private-sector groups consult CIDRAP's expert staff on public health preparedness, emerging infectious disease response, agricultural and food biosecurity, and food safety.

CIDRAP has played a central role in establishing the University of Minnesota's emergency preparedness plans.

Whether it was a national leader speaking on stage or an informal conversation over lunch, the summit underscored an important lesson: Tomorrow's public health leaders need to understand the private sector, and the private sector looks to public health on issues of preparedness.

"Public health can be an important player at the national and international level," says Osterholm. "It's about understanding consequential public health. It's not enough to learn it [and] to preach it. You must practice it."

Nick Kelley, a first-year student in environmental health sciences, said, "The experience solidified the notion that the field I'm going into is constantly changing." Along with classmates, Kelley candidly "blogged" his way through the summit; see Kelley's blog.

The computer as public-health tool is second nature to Kelley, who also works as a research assistant for CIDRAP. (A recent "need-to-know by the end of the day" assignment from Osterholm had Kelley estimating the number of people who crossed international borders in 2006.) Kelley also provides daily H5N1 virus updates for officials at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa. As an undergraduate student there, he wrote a paper about the dangers of pandemic influenza that was disseminated to local leaders and published in the newspaper.

Kelley was inspired to write the paper--outside of his regular coursework--after reading The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History by John Barry. The book details the devastating flu pandemic of 1918. When Kelley came across the book, he had no idea that years later, he would meet Barry at the summit.

These are the influential moments that don't happen in the classroom, said Osterholm. And they build a knowledge that the next generation of public health leaders needs to tackle the challenges ahead.

"It's a critical connection and experience that goes beyond the books," he added. "It's important for students to see this firsthand. It shows them that the possibilities for their future really are endless."

To hear student comments and see photos from the summit, go to: http://www.sph.umn.edu/about/slideshow.html.

To read the blog, go to http://blog.lib.umn.edu/sphpod/panflu/.


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