April 13, 2001

The Natural History Museum Gets Outreach Down To A Science

By Yvette tenBerge

In a serious effort to educate and to protect the health of low-income families and Spanish speaking residents, The San Diego Natural History Museum, located in Balboa Park, has mounted an unprecedented outreach campaign aimed at luring all San Diegans downtown to view their hands-on exhibit, Epidemic! The Natural History of Disease.

The tuberculosis exhibit in Epidemic! The Natural History of Disease.

Through educational videos, interactive computer stations, realistic dioramas and colorful three-dimensional models, the bilingual exhibition explores the biological, ecological and cultural factors that influence the causes, spread and control of infectious disease. From now until August 12th, visitors can learn about specific diseases like malaria, the flu, tuberculosis and AIDS while also learning about the larger issues of disease containment, treatment and prevention.

"There has really been an extraordinary effort by this museum to reach out to ethnic communities precisely because this topic is very timely for San Diego," says Chisun Chun, MPH, a Public Health Education Specialist for the Natural History Museum. Ms. Chun helped develop and implement the community outreach strategies for this exhibit. "Most people today think that we have medicine and vaccines, so they get complacent. They believe that there is little left that they, themselves, can do [to help prevent disease.] We wanted to bring the issues in the exhibit to the forefront to show them that this is not the case."

With the rapid, national spreading of diseases like AIDS, it is not difficult to see why an exhibit such as this would be critical, especially for Spanish-speaking families with poor access to healthcare. According to an Epidemic! presentation entitled "Tuberculosis: Think Globally, Act Locally," an estimated 280,000 people in San Diego, alone, carry the TB virus. Of these carriers, 10 percent will go on to develop the full-blown respiratory disease at some point in their lives.

Epidemic!, a traveling exhibit from the American Museum of Natural History in New York, was brought to San Diego with funding provided by organizations like the Alliance Healthcare Foundation and the California Endowment. These two institutions have missions that include outreach to medically underserved communities with little or no access to healthcare. Because of this, particular outreach efforts have been, and will continue to be, focused on the medically underserved communities of City Heights, Linda Vista, San Ysidro, El Cajon, Santee, San Marcos, Vista, Oceanside, Encinitas and Carlsbad. Teacher training sites in Tijuana, Tecate, Ensenada and Mexicali in northern Baja California have been selected as target sites, as well.

Exhibit organizers did not end their outreach efforts, though, after simply translating some exhibit material, as well as an audio tour, from English to Spanish. Museum staff located existing community organizations and medical personnel who were willing to help them spread the word and provided them with discount tickets and roughly $70,000 worth of free "VIP Passes" to distribute. The Museum has found sponsors for buses and vans which will be used to bring many students to the museum, and the exhibit provides instruction material for teachers. On top of this, admission to the exhibit is free to all visitors during National Immunization Week, which runs from April 23 through April 29.

"There are three things that I would like the public to walk away knowing," says Ms. Chun. "The first is that infectious diseases are not a thing of the past; they are relevant now. Second, there are many simple things that we can do to protect ourselves from infectious diseases, like washing our hands and getting immunizations for our children. Finally, not all microbes [single-cell organisms that are invisible to the eye] are bad." In saying this, Ms. Chun explains that 95 percent of microbes are actually harmless, while the remaining five percent when combined with the right conditions can be triggered to cause disease. She stops herself in mid-sentence to return to the core of the Museum's reason for dedicating so much time and so much funding into this outreach effort. "The educational component of this exhibit is so important that we believe that everyone should have an equal opportunity to take advantage of it."

Although medical treatment is often too expensive for many families to be able to afford, disease prevention is often much less costly. As the exhibit goes to great lengths to show, prevention is something in which anyone, no matter their ethnic background or their economic standing, can participate.

For more information about the Museum or the exhibit, visit the Museum website at: www.sdnhm.org

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