Public and academic discussions on the end of diseases are abundant in the midst of recent epidemic crises. Faltering vaccination rates have seen old diseases, like measles and whooping cough resurface to epidemic proportions in the Global North. Several global epidemic crises, such as the swine flu and ebola, have prompted international organizations, local governments, pharmaceutical companies, research institutions and individuals to respond in manifold ways with the aim of controlling and eventually ending epidemic diseases. Ending diseases for good have been the goal of several eradication campaigns over the 20th century and are the focus of global projects such as the polio eradication initiative, spearheaded by the a public-private partnership including the WHO, the CDC, UNICEF, the Rotary and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
In his now classic article ‘What is an epidemic?’, Charles Rosenberg pointed out that epidemics as social phenomena work with a particular dramaturgic form of increasing tension, crisis and eventual closure. Scholarly analysis, historical or contemporary, has tended to follow this narrative, focusing on prevention, outbreaks, epidemic crises, upheaval, and the end of disease. What happens after the end is more often than not left to epilogues, or addressed only in relation to a new, emerging disease on the cusp of crisis. Yet, diseases are often imprinted on the bodies of survivors, societies and cultures. Epidemics may change economic structures, social interaction, shape practices of international intervention and attitudes towards healthcare. In some cases, the proclaimed end of a disease leaves individuals or whole societies and states without resources previously guaranteed by the perceived epidemic threat. In others, the action of looking back after the end creates space for making moral judgements on individuals, societies, governments and international organizations.
This conference brings together historians of medicine and global public health, anthropologists and sociologists with policy makers to think past the conventional narrative curve of epidemics and disease in general. The overall aim of the event is to initiate a fruitful discussion on how various academic analyses and perceptions of what happens after the end of disease can inform current global health policies of eradication and epidemic management, and in turn, how the experiences of practitioners in global public health may provide insight and further the understanding of the historical trajectories and ethnographic, and sociological studies of ending diseases.
Some of the questions this conference aims to explore are (but not limited to):
- How do states, societies and international organizations prepare for the end of a disease?
- What happens to the disease itself after the end?
- What are the lasting consequences of epidemic diseases that linger on after the end?
- What happens when a disease makes a comeback?
- Who and when decides if a disease is over? Where and for whom do diseases end and who is excluded/forgotten?
- How does the action of determining the “end” of an epidemic (e.g. ebola, polio, etc.) affect those involved: those who fear, those who prepare, those who cure, those who survive?
- What happens if the end of a disease fails to arrive?
Header images: Wellcome Polio vaccine dropped on to sugar lump for child patient (Wellcome Library, London WFA WF/M/I/PR/P04); Healthcare workers in protection suits in Monrovia (Dominique Faget / AFP/Getty Images); Map showing the distribution of Leprosy around the world in 1891. Extracted from Leprosy by George Thin, Percival and Co., London 1891. (Wellcome Library, London)