North Bay university turns coronavirus into a teachable moment on global public health

For students of public health, the new Coronavirus outbreak is a real-life lesson on a global scale. 

For some, it adds new urgency to their field of study. 

"A lot of what's happening now was happening with Ebola and was happening with Zika," said Dr. Brett Bayles, addressing his Thursday evening class at Dominican University of California in San Rafael. 

Bayles is an epidemiologist, specializing in human health and infectious disease during a time of planetary change. 

Dominican is one of a handful of colleges in the U.S. offering a degree in 
"Global Public Health" to undergraduate students. 

They are learning it is a burgeoning field, with animal to human viral transmission on the rise. 

"These kinds of public health threats are going to become the new normal and we need to be prepared for that," Prof. Bayles told KTVU

Experts trace the increased infection rate to social factors, such as the live animal markets where people and animals come in close contact, and human encroachment into wildland ecosystems where pathogens exist. 
Climate change is also considered a stressor, creating habitat change and migration among animals and people. 

"What we have is a spillover, probably because a number of these different tipping points were reached," Bayles told his students. 
"The human behaviors and social conditions need to be right, and the environmental conditions need to be right."

Students enrolled in the Environmental Public Health course were prepared to focus on the West Nile Virus this session. 

Bayles instructs them on using data and predictive mapping tools to forecast the virus' behavior in California. 

But as Coronavirus dominates the discussion, Bayles demonstrates how basic principles are the same in both viruses. 

"We can kind of predict where these kinds of events will happen," said Bayles, "and the people who make the maps all started by taking a class like this." 

Some students are energized by the challenge of preventing disease.  

"There's going to be a lot to do," said Emiley Eassa, majoring in Environmental Public Health."I think we have to be prepared for all the changes and the public has to be prepared, so we're all going to have to be ready." 

Other students are startled to learn such outbreaks are predictable and linked to a struggling ecosystem. 

"That makes climate change a real life implication," said political science major Allison Kustic.

"Saving animals is important but when it impacts our own health that becomes much more real."  

Dr. Bayles says the current coronavirus will spread, runs its course, and subside, like those before it. 

He urges his students to look ahead, to identify the next hot spot, because it's only a question of time. 

"We're living on an accelerating changing planet," lectured Bayles, "so if we can stop the next one, how many lives can we save then?"  

In education, "planetary health" as an aspect of public health has been around for about five years. 

"If you really want to affect change and save lives and reduce the burden of disease," concluded Bayles," then figure out why this is happening in the first place."

Debora Villalon