Mar. 03 2020

Epidemiology Forum Highlights Field's Power to Fight for Health

Last week, the Columbia Mailman School hosted the seventh annual New York City Epidemiology Forum. The all-day event brought epidemiologists from local universities and government agencies to share their research and insights on some of the world’s most serious health challenges—not least of all, the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak.

Presenting an overview of the fast-moving outbreak and the struggle to contain it, Stephen Morse, professor of epidemiology, noted that Columbia Mailman epidemiologists have been meaningfully involved in all the major coronavirus outbreaks—SARS, MERS, and now COVID-19, also known as SARS-CoV-2. A 2017 study by Epidemiology Professor Simon Anthony identified bats as a reservoir for a diverse array of coronaviruses, some of which the paper noted could be transmitted to humans. According to Morse, these findings “should have been a wakeup call” that another coronavirus outbreak would wreak havoc on the world.

Morse explained that the COVID-19 outbreak has spread faster than SARS because the newer virus can more easily be passed person to person. Comparing the containment effort to “putting a finger in the dam,” he said, “the question is how long before the dam bursts. We’re seeing cracks already. Sooner or later, probably sooner, we will see [COVID-19] everywhere.”

One of the biggest unanswered questions about COVID-19 is just how deadly it is. According to Morse, current estimates of around 3 percent—about the same as the 1918 flu pandemic—may considerably overestimate the COVID-19’s virulence since experts expect that there are a large number of undocumented cases with mild infections. “This is likely going to resemble a very nasty flu pandemic rather than something like the movie ‘Contagion,’” he said.

Two markedly different, high-stakes struggles in public health were covered in a keynote speech by Cheryl Healton, dean of NYU’s School of Global Public Health. Addressing the large number of students and junior faculty in the audience, she shared wisdom gleaned from her illustrious career—one that saw her on the front lines of marquee fights against HIV/AIDS and tobacco use.

When an effective HIV therapy emerged in the mid-1990s, Healton, a former member of the Columbia Mailman School faculty, spearheaded efforts to prevent perinatal transmission—an approach that was adopted nationally. The HIV/AIDS crisis took its toll on everyone, including researchers; “AIDS was the World Series of public health,” Healton said. Later, as the top executive at the Legacy Foundation, she spread the truth about the harms of tobacco while successfully defending the effort against attacks by the industry who sought to preserve their profits. “These David versus Goliath battles are the ones that recharge our batteries and make us realize that public health is social justice,” she told the audience of epidemiologists.

As noted by Epidemiology Chair Charles Branas, the forum—possibly the largest local epidemiology event of its kind in the nation—saw more than 600 registrants, and 18 institutions were represented in presentations and in poster sessions. Epidemiology professors Pam Factor-Litvak and Parisa Tehranifar organized the event with support from staff members Gerald Govia, Craig Kandell, and Carmen Rodriguez, and input from a committee of 17 New York City-area scientists.

Not surprisingly, many of the forum’s presentations centered on research taking place in the New York City area. Topics included the health and economic benefits of a soda tax; healthy aging among Asian and Pacific Islander seniors; e-cigarette use among middle and high school students; and the mental health effects of Hurricane Sandy among older New Yorkers.

Naturally, Columbia Mailman epidemiologists were among those presenting findings. Wan Yang, assistant professor of epidemiology, shared a new method for analyzing cancer trends among young adults. MPH candidate Megan Marziali reviewed findings from a study about the links between loneliness and physical health among men who have sex with men. Doctoral students Susanah Leisher and Jonathan Russell presented their research on maternal stress and infant telomere length and on PTSD and alcohol-related hospitalizations in the World Trade Center Health Registry. MPH candidate Christina Mehranbod received an award for her poster examining the impact of ridesharing on vulnerable road users.

Dean Linda P. Fried, who is a physician and epidemiologist, observed that New York City has been “the home of public health for well over 100 years.” The foundations of the field—including epidemiology—were forged within the five boroughs. In the intervening years, public health has helped extend our lives and improve our health. Today, in a moment when leadership to bring about a better world is in short supply, Dean Fried said epidemiologists create the knowledge to make a better future possible. “It’s a moment of pride for epidemiology.”