Facing Pandemics: Science, Ethics, and Uncertainty

Date & Time

Wed, 06/03/2009


The recent swine flu pandemic captured the attention and the worry of many of us. In simple terms, this epidemic was defined as a pandemic because it had spread rapidly not just through a local community, but through much of the world.

Modern science has been instrumental in better understanding the threats of infectious diseases, as well as providing us with tools to decrease the impact of those diseases. In some cases, our best recourse is an effective vaccine, but we also know that vaccine supplies are not always adequate, we frequently need new vaccines to match the evolution of infectious agents, and there are some risks of vaccination.

Another option is to treat infections when they occur with antibiotics or antiviral agents, but such treatments are often costly, they are variably effective, and if used inappropriately can help to shape the evolution of a more resistant strain of bacteria or virus.

But whether or not we already have effective vaccines, antibiotics, and antiviral agents, we can only guess as to whether a newly appearing pandemic will be either as severe or as widespread as may initially be feared.

This forum focused on how we should respond to these threats. How do we decide when and how to act? If decisions under crisis conditions are not always based on the most rational analysis, what can we do to better prepare ourselves individually and as a community when the next threat occurs?



Francesca J. Torriani
Professor, Clinical Medicine, Department of Medicine, Division of Infectious Diseases, UC San Diego

Francesca J. Torriani, M.D., is a Professor of Clinical Medicine in the Department of Medicine, Division of Infectious Diseases at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD). Dr. Torriani received her medical degree in 1985 from the University Medical School in Lausanne, Switzerland. In 1995, Dr. Torriani joined the UCSD faculty after completing an Infectious Diseases Fellowship. She attends on the HIV ward and in the Owen clinic, on the General Medicine Wards and on the inpatient Infectious Diseases Consultation.

Phillip Van Saun
Director, Continuity and Emergency Services, UC San Diego

Phillip Van Saun is Director of Continuity and Emergency Services at the University of California. He has served in the field of crisis management since 1987 when he was a Marine assigned to the White House emergency response mission as a member of Marine One – the Presidential Helicopter Squadron.  He is a graduate of the National Interagency crisis communications program, the White House Military Office’s executive support program and the executive seminar in crisis management at Harvard University. He holds a Masters of Arts degree in communication from Trinity University.

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