Curious about coronavirus? Smithsonian exhibit explores infectious diseases

As the new coronavirus spreads across the U.S., those interested in learning more about epidemics can visit a Smithsonian exhibit in D.C. that opened two years ago.

The exhibit explores the history of infectious diseases.

The virus that causes COVID-19 has affected more than 100 countries and infected thousands of people worldwide, disrupting work, school and travel schedules, while public health officials work to contain and mitigate the virus, for which there is currently no vaccine.

In “Outbreak: Epidemics in a Connected World,” the National Museum of Natural History invites visitors to join epidemiologists, veterinarians, public health workers and citizens as they identify and respond to infectious diseases.

“We wanted people to understand that we’ve been here before. A virus may be new to science, but what we’re experiencing is not necessarily entirely new,” said Dr. Sabrina Sholts, a biological anthropologist and curator of the exhibit.

The three-year temporary exhibit, which opened in 2018 to mark the 100th anniversary of the Spanish Flu pandemic that killed an estimated 50 million people worldwide, examines the 1918 event and other deadly outbreaks, including HIV/AIDS in the 1980s, SARS in 2003 and Ebola, which swept West Africa in 2014.

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“They are different types of viruses. They’re spread differently. They have different symptoms, and they can do different things,” Sholts said.

The exhibit is designed to raise awareness of how human life intertwines with animal life and the environment, and how viruses can spread from animals to people.

The exhibit includes the words of a D.C. man who lived to tell about the Great Influenza of 1918.

“He talks about the social distancing people at that time, in 1918, had to use … in order to try to protect themselves. He said that you had no community life, you had no school life, you had no church life … people were afraid to kiss, they were afraid to eat with each other, they were afraid to have any contact with each other,” Sholts said.

The exhibit also examines zoonotic diseases, which spread from animals to humans, and the public health response to them.

If you go to the Smithsonian, be aware that the museum is monitoring the situation with coronavirus. It has issued this statement:

The Smithsonian is continuing to welcome guests to our museums and scheduled public programs. The health and safety of our visitors and staff are a top priority, and we are closely monitoring the coronavirus situation. We are following the guidance of local health officials and the CDC. As a preventive measure, we have installed hand sanitizers for the public at museum entrances, and our maintenance staff is cleaning surfaces regularly throughout the day. The current guidance from the CDC does not recommend wearing masks, so we do not provide them for visitors or staff.”

Dick Uliano

Whether anchoring the news inside the Glass-Enclosed Nerve Center or reporting from the scene in Maryland, Virginia or the District, Dick Uliano is always looking for the stories that really impact people's lives.

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