Global Health Week at MUSC returns in virtual format

April 07, 2021
outline of a globe with the words MUSC Global Health Week overlaid and the dates April 12 to 16 2021
MUSC's Global Health Week is free and open to the public.

Global Health Week at MUSC will reach more people than ever this year, thanks to a new virtual format prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Naturally, a major focus of this year’s Global Health Week is the coronavirus that has shut down entire nations and become the third leading cause of death in the United States. But COVID-19 won’t be the only topic of discussion.

Kathleen Ellis, executive director of the MUSC Center for Global Health, previews the week’s sessions, which are free and open to the public.

Q: Last year’s Global Health Week had to be canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic. How did you decide to bring the event back this year, in virtual format, and how did the pandemic affect planning?

This is the sixth year of hosting Global Health Week. We were disappointed last year when we had to cancel, but it was scheduled for late March right when everything was shutting down. Global health has never been more front and center, and it was never a question of “if” we bring the event back this year – just in what format.

The pandemic has changed so much about how we work and communicate, and the shift to virtual platforms gave us the opportunity to expand our program, bringing together speakers from three continents and five time zones to share their expertise.

Hosting online allows more accessibility to the public at large since we are not as limited by space, budgets or schedules. It was only natural for COVID-19 to be a focal point for the week, but it was also very important to us to promote and celebrate the rich and diverse cultures of our international students, scholars and alumni.

Q: What do you hope that people will get out of Global Health Week?

We often talk in global health about how “diseases don’t carry passports” and an “outbreak is just one plane ride away.” The pandemic has really shined a light on what the term global health means and how similar and interlinked our health truly is. My biggest hope is that people walk away from these talks and recognize that for all of our differences, we are in this together.

Q: The marquee event of the week is Friday’s panel on the challenges of global COVID-19 vaccination. What can people expect to hear during this event?

It’s quite unprecedented that in under a year, the scientific community has created multiple effective vaccines for COVID-19. But there are still challenges ahead with the global vaccine rollout – access, equity, ethics, supply – and not every country faces the same challenges. It’s critical that everyone around the globe is vaccinated; this is really one of the main issues we’re facing now. Without global vaccination, we run the risk of more transmission, more mutations and variants emerging and a prolonging of the pandemic.

As part of this session, participants will have the chance to hear the most up-to-date emerging science from top experts in the world about new types of vaccines being developed, the likelihood of new vaccine technology that would vastly expand the ability to deal with variants and new coronaviruses and why vaccine hesitancy is growing around the globe. Panelists will share the latest findings on people’s attitudes toward COVID-19 measures and vaccines, the main issues surrounding acceptance of COVID-19 vaccines and the impact of rumors on vaccine acceptance. They will also discuss effective strategies for increasing confidence in vaccines and building trust in communities.

Q: Another panel features speakers from Clemson Bioengineering and MUSC’s College of Dental Medicine talking about innovation during a pandemic. This crisis has certainly sparked many creative innovations. What was it about this group that prompted you to invite them to speak?

MUSC has a National Institutes of Health field site focused on HIV and noncommunicable diseases and a cardiology capacity-building program in Tanzania, and Clemson Bioengineering is part of a South Carolina-Tanzania consortium that was formed several years ago.

We’ve partnered with Delphine Dean, Ph.D., and John DesJardins, Ph.D., the lead investigators from Clemson Bioengineering, for more than a decade. Clemson has a great student program called Creative Inquiry, and in Dean and Desjardins’ class, the students work on designing innovative low-cost solutions for low-resource communities. Many of the students travel to our field site as part of their summer project. We often talk about reverse innovation or “frugal innovation” and how we in the U.S. can learn lessons from our partners in low-income countries who have developed novel, cost-effective approaches to health care.

It was only natural at the start of the pandemic for researchers, engineers and health care professionals to shift their efforts to identifying and designing rapid low-cost solutions to tackle COVID-19 – especially as we were starting to see the challenges for undeserved communities. Clemson created a COVID-19 research and design challenge, open to the state, and a wealth of proposed projects were submitted from faculty, staff and students across South Carolina. MUSC faculty member Julie Marshall, Ph.D., led a team project called Tackling the Realities of Adverse COVID-19 Effects that looked at helping community leaders address and support vulnerabilities in their specific communities.

Q: What else is happening during this year’s Global Health Week?

Gebregziabher in his office 
Dr. Mulugeta Gebregziabher in his office at MUSC. Photo by Sarah Pack

One of our international alumna is a professional dancer, and she’s partnering with a percussionist from Seattle for a lecture-demo on Middle Eastern dances. Guests will gain a better understanding of the evolution and movements of the dance and how it varies between regions. We also have several of our MUSC international students showcasing the cultures, foods and languages of their home countries of Lebanon, Sri Lanka and the Philippines.

The week is kicking off with a panel discussion about the public health crisis of war, highlighting the issue through case studies from Croatia, Ethiopia, West Africa, Venezuela and Latin America. This session was organized by Mulugeta Gebregziabher, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Public Health Sciences, whose family and colleagues are currently experiencing the dire impacts of civil war in the Tigray Region of Ethiopia, his homeland.