A sabbatical and a new line of research

Aaron’s not the only one going in for self-improvement. I’ve got a sabbatical coming up, and my family and I will be relocating to Geneva for the 2016-17 academic year.

I’m hoping to use the time to learn more about the legal regime and institutional framework for combatting global pandemics. Geneva is the nerve center of those efforts—the home not only to the World Health Organization, but also UNAIDS, Gavi, and the Global Fund to Fight Aids, Tuberculosis and Malaria. Plus, I’ll be a visiting fellow in the Graduate Institute’s Global Health Programme, so I’ll have a chance to learn from the experts.

This will mark a pivot point for my research, which has focused strictly on domestic law. But it’ll be a welcome shift. The law surrounding infectious disease has been an abiding interest. My wife and I are even co-teaching a short seminar here at the University of Michigan, called Contagion, that looks at pandemics through history—cholera, Spanish flu, polio, AIDS, SARS, and Ebola.

Geneva offers a chance to make this interest much less idle. It’s a really exciting time in global health law, mainly because the Ebola outbreak has exposed serious inadequacies in the global response to pandemic outbreaks. A number of blue-ribbon commissions—including a WHO panel, the Commission on Global Health Risk, the Harvard-London public health schools, and more—have called for sweeping reforms and massive new investments. It’s a matter of considerable urgency for the world whether and how those reform efforts are implemented.

But don’t take my word for it. Here’s the Commission on Global Health Risk, which notes that the risks of doing nothing are enormous:

The 1918 influenza pandemic killed approximately 50 million people and arguably as high as 100 million in 1918–1920. Compared with other catastrophic mortality events since 1900, only World War II caused more deaths. Since it first appeared in the late 1960s, HIV/AIDS has killed more than 35 million people. As a driver of incremental mortality in the last 50 years, no war or natural disaster can compare. Prior to 1900, pandemics were the leading cause of massive increases in mortality by a wide margin. Moreover, despite enormous advances in medicine and scientific understanding, and the containment of recent pandemic threats such as severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), H1N1 influenza, and, eventually, Ebola, we should not be complacent about future risks. The consensus among leading epidemiologists and public health experts is the threat from infectious diseases is growing. The rate of emergence of new infectious diseases is rising, and, with an ever-increasing global population, greater consumption of meat, and continuing increases in mobility and connectivity, the conditions for infectious disease emergence and contagion are more dangerous than ever.

With that in mind, let me know if you’ve got recommendations of what I should read to bone up before I leave for Europe (comments are open for this post). I’ll be blogging periodically to share what I’ve learned.


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