In the Journals

"Epidemics": a special issue of Behemoth

The electronic journal Behemoth which “focuses on the general problem of the fading and/or failing state,” has a new themed issue which focuses on epidemics, more specifically exploring “critical issues arising within the new problem space of emerging infectious diseases,” (Caduff 2010).  As Carlo Caduff argues in his introduction to the volume,

“In the aftermath of the Cold War and its historically distinctive institutions of international order, the specter of emerging diseases has…become a prominent site of thought, action, and passion where crucial meanings of health, safety, and security are articulated and negotiated.  It is perhaps primarily these multiple kinds of ambivalent resonances that make the discourse and ideology of emerging diseases so suggestive and this so powerful and pervasive today,” (Caduff 2010: 4).

The titles and abstracts of this issue’s articles–all of which are open-access–are below:

Carlo Caduff, Editorial

Katherine A. Mason, Becoming Modern after SARS. Battling the H1N1 Pandemic and the Politics of Backwardness in China’s Pearl River Delta

This article traces the early evolution of the H1N1 pandemic as it played out in China’s Pearl River Delta in the spring and summer of 2009, as local public health professionals there tried to contain the virus when their American counterparts did not do so. My informants’ difficulties in escaping their perceived status as a source, rather than a victim, of dangerous viruses; their use of disease control tactics that were portrayed abroad as excessive, unscientific, and unsophisticated; and their fatalism about reforming their local system of governance; all frustrated their ambitions. At the same time, the gulf between their reactions to H1N1 and the reactions across the Pacific suggests the need for a more serious global debate about what local places in all parts of the globe should and should not be prepared to do in the name of pandemic preparedness.

Lyle Fearnley, Epidemic Intelligence. Langmuir and the Birth of Disease Surveillance

In the wake of the SARS and influenza epidemics of the past decade, one public health solution has become a refrain: surveillance systems for detection of disease outbreaks. This paper is an effort to understand how disease surveillance for outbreak detection gained such paramount rationality in contemporary public health. The epidemiologist Alexander Langmuir is well known as the creator of modern disease surveillance. But less well known is how he imagined disease surveillance as one part of what he called “epidemic intelligence.” Langmuir developed the practice of disease surveillance during an unprecedented moment in which the threat of biological warfare brought civil defense experts and epidemiologists together around a common problem. In this paper, I describe how Langmuir navigated this world, experimenting with new techniques and rationales of epidemic control. Ultimately, I argue, Langmuir’s experiments resulted in a set of techniques and infrastructures – a system of epidemic intelligence – that transformed the epidemic as an object of human art.

Theresa MacPhail, A Predictable Unpredictability. The 2009 H1N1 pandemic and the concept of “strategic uncertainty” within global public health

This essay will examine the seemingly new paradigm shift within global public health from the use of a scientific “certainty” to a biological and situational “uncertainty” as one of the foundations of response to infectious disease outbreaks. During the recent 2009 H1N1 influenza outbreak, national and international public health officials often referred directly to the “uncertainty” surrounding both the virus itself and of the course, duration and severity of the pandemic. The vague and flexible concept of “uncertainty” – especially as it was employed by top virologists and epidemiologists in relationship to questions about the predictability of the influenza virus – provided the scientific foundation for much of the rationale behind both national and international health responses to the global pandemic. Public health officials, epidemiologists, and scientists often deployed a type of “strategic uncertainty” as an effective tool for gaining or retaining trust and scientific authority during the H1N1 pandemic.

Johanna T. Crane, Unequal ‘Partners’. AIDS, Academia, and the Rise of Global Health

The last decade has seen the proliferation of “global health” departments, centers, programs, and majors across top research universities in North America and Europe. This trend has been particularly pronounced in the United States, where it is connected to America’s new role as a major sponsor of HIV treatment in Africa. This paper describes the rise of “global health” as a research, funding, and training priority within U.S. academic medicine, and the increasing desirability of “global health partnerships” with institutions in sub-Saharan Africa. Leading spokespersons emphasize that “partnership” with poor nations is central to the mission of global health, an ethic that distinguishes it from older, more paternalistic traditions of international health and tropical medicine. However, at the same time, the field of academic global health depends on steep inequalities for its very existence, as it is the opportunity to work in impoverished, low-tech settings with high disease burdens that draws North American researchers and clinicians to global health programs and ensures their continued funding. This paradox – in which inequality is both a form of suffering to be redressed and a professional, knowledge-generating, opportunity to be exploited – makes the partnerships to which global health aspires particularly challenging.