When I offered to coordinate CDC/PHPR’s participation at this year’s Dragon*Con, I truly did not grasp how big of an event it is. Dragon*Con is considered the largest pop culture convention in the universe – and while trying to navigate through the crowd of roughly fifty two thousand sci-fi, fantasy, gaming, and science enthusiasts the enormity of the event quickly became apparent.
The CDC staff who attended Dragon*Con 2012 over Labor Day weekend, went not to indulge in the art of costume craftsmanship and con festivities, but to share some insight into the world of public health preparedness and showcase what we do 24/7/365 to save lives and safeguard communities from public health threats. The magnitude of this community-outreach opportunity didn’t hit me until I was standing in line for the escalator Friday afternoon to pick up my badge. Overlooking a sea of what felt like thousands of eager con-goers, I thought, “what a great way to kick off National Preparedness Month!”
On Sunday morning, September 2, an enthusiastic audience of about 100 gathered to listen to the first panel CDC participated in, 2012 – Don’t Panic!, featuring Dr. Khan – Director of CDC’s Office of Public Health Preparedness, Dr. Pamela Gay – writer and astronomer, Scott Sigler – a New York Times best-selling novelist, Dr. Phil Plait – astronomer and author, and William Wells – entrepreneur and the panel moderator. The panelists produced a lively discussion laying out the facts which debunk many of the “how the world will end” theories seen within pop culture and media today. From solar flares eliminating the existence of human life to black holes swallowing the earth, the panel embraced the crowd’s inquisitive nature and directed the audience’s attention towards some of the more immediate threats we face on a daily basis — outbreaks, pandemics, and natural disasters. The public health-centric turn in the discussion provided a great opportunity for the panelists to share some actions the audience can take to help prevent morbidity and mortality; reinforcing key public health messages such as the importance of washing your hands; making sure you and your children are vaccinated; getting a kit, making a plan, being informed; helping your neighbors and your community, and when disaster strikes, being an ACTive member of your community.
Immediately following the 2012 – Don’t Panic! Panel, science lovers gathered to hear what CDC and CNN had to say regarding U.S. preparedness and response. Comprised of Chad Myers – CNN Severe Weather Anchor, Dr. Ali Khan – Director of PHPR, and Dr. Chris Portier – Director of NCEH/ATSDR the panel navigated through a series of preparedness questions to showcase how CDC and CNN keep the nation safe before, during, and after public health emergencies and addressed ways in which the audience can contribute to preparedness efforts occurring within their own community. A Q&A session immediately followed the panel presentation, which led to some great questions and responses:
Does CDC collaborate with the Military during disasters? And does this involve NIMS/ICS?
Dr. Khan: Yes, in fact we have a DOD liaison at CDC and we work very closely with them and other members of the military during a response. And yes, all federal agencies follow NIMS/ICS and we actually worked with state and LHDs to include it in their emergency management plans as well.
Dr. Portier: One example of this collaboration is the response to the Tsunami in Japan which was followed by the Fukushima-Daichi nuclear reactor disaster. The military commander asked us whether they should move the troops back, administer Potassium Iodide (KI), and extract the families of service men and women stationed there.
How much do you believe CDC influences entertainment or how much is CDC influenced by science-fiction in entertainment?
Dr. Khan: CDC works diligently to influence the science or facts in entertainment today. Take the movie Contagion for example. We worked very closely with their writers and producers to ensure the science was accurate. CDC also partners with Hollywood Health & Society on a numerous other media-related projects like Greys Anatomy, Doc McStuffins, etc.
Chad Myers: One of the best qualities one can have when thinking about preparedness is to be continually cognizant of “what will happen next” scenarios. Scenarios such as, don’t park the truck there during a hurricane, the telephone pole may fall on the van and block the entrance or if we are living in a community with only one ambulance service, let’s make sure we have contingency plans and additional vendor agreements in place so all of the hospitals and long-term care facilities in the area aren’t relying on one vendor to evacuate patients when needed. We are using entertainment as an educational tool today; allowing us to increase the number of people thinking about their own preparedness and improving the forward thinking individuals need to be an effective contributor during a response.
Does CDC keep any stats on anti-vaccination campaigns, hand-sanitizer use, etc.?
Dr. Portier: Well, there is extensive surveillance being done on vaccinations and numerous studies conducted in hospitals regarding hand washing and the like. They are not necessarily focused on the specific scenarios you mentioned, but rather the consequences of not washing your hands, etc.
Is this a focus during a response?
Dr. Portier: Side-ward threats don’t really take focus during a response, but electricity failing, sea-level rising – these are the things that take center stage because 65% of the population lives within a coast. Well guess where a majority of hospitals and primary care physicians are? We (public health professionals) are consumed by what happens if that infrastructure is damaged, roads start eroding, and we can no longer evacuate patients. This is the forward thinking needed before and during a response and each of you in here have the ability to make a positive contribution during a response. Take a CPR class, learn first aid, make sure you have a plan for your family so you’re available to help your neighbor if necessary. You can make all the difference!
The sheer intelligence and the overflowing creativity of con-goers and staff made an indelible impression on me. From the informative panels to the casual conversations held with genuinely interested attendees, the experience as a whole has made me eager to see what the outreach opportunity will hold next year.
*Special thanks to Derek Colanduno, Bill Fawcett, Chad Myers, Dru Myers, and Rachel Reeves.