By Pawan Bhat
On February 3, 2020, what used to be an empty lot a mere 10 days prior had become the site of a thousand bed hospital in Wuhan, China. What prompted such a sudden construction? The novel coronavirus, similar to the deadly SARS virus, had struck in late December and shut down an entire city. Since the virus posed flu-like symptoms and a highly contagious replication rate, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared a global health emergency on January 30, 2020. As of today, there are more than 20,000 confirmed cases and rising, with representation in twenty-five countries according to WHO data.
“I believe that the novel Coronavirus will become a global pandemic,” stated Dr. Lorelei Cropley, Professor of Practice at Tulane’s School of Public Health. “It’s the human factor that promotes the spread of disease. People will travel and avoid being quarantined.” And this is precisely what will propagate disease, especially in the age of globalization where travel is convenient and affordable.
Two hundred years ago, however, travel was not as accessible. But certain cities that people frequented would provide the model for modern epidemiology. New Orleans, Louisiana, is such a city. “There are three factors that made New Orleans a popular destination: Economics, Military, and People,” Dr. Cropley explained. Unfortunately, these aspects also turned New Orleans into an epicenter of infectious disease outbreaks.
When yellow fever came to New Orleans, it was a contagion that lasted nearly a century and decimated the city, paralleling the novel coronavirus epidemic in Wuhan. As a port city, New Orleans was no stranger to tropical diseases. “New Orleans had a long history with tropical diseases, because of how swampy it was,” Dr. Cropley said. Due to the marshes, burial practices included mass shrines that were above ground. People would fill urns with water to respect the dead. Little did people know that their burial practices fostered the breeding grounds for the Aedes aegypti mosquito, the vector for the disease that originated from the tropics.
“Walter Reed, a military man, helped make the link between yellow fever and its transmission,” Dr. Cropley said. The military, in order to be at peak efficiency, could not face the severe consequence of disease. This spurred much of the medical and public health innovation in the nineteenth century, including the discovery of yellow fever’s transmission.
Academics began to see that studying the prevention of disease was just as important as treatment of symptoms. Nationally recognized faculty from The Medical College of Louisiana worked on the link between yellow fever and Aedes aegypti. In March, 1913, The School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine was formally recognized to study the prevention and transmission of disease. These events marked the beginnings of Tulane University.
In the present day, Tulane’s mission is to take a global approach to preventing the spread of infectious disease. “The best way to prevent a disease from coming here is to stop it there,” mentions Dr. Cropley. “Tulane prides itself for being on the front lines.” A leading example is Lina Moses, an assistant professor who worked on Ebola in Africa. She created interventions to spread the transmission of the virus in real time, “boots-on-the-ground work” at the site of the outbreak. Currently, Moses is one of several faculty members on Tulane’s novel coronavirus task force, who have used their background in viral zoonotic diseases (i.e. Ebola and HIV) to address the novel coronavirus problem. Even though faculty can’t travel to China due to the travel ban, members of this task force have worked diligently to provide models for the virology and epidemiology of the novel coronavirus.
Just as it did with yellow fever and Ebola, Tulane again will prove itself to be a world leader in public health with the novel coronavirus outbreak. According to Dr. Cropley, one simply “can’t keep the global out of New Orleans.” This simple fact will continue Tulane’s legacy in disease prevention and promoting health.