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The plagues

Microbiology Museum at the Butantan Institute opens Great epidemics, a traveling exhibition

The swine flu pandemic that frightened the planet last year brought to mind a forgotten fact: no matter how much knowledge, technology and information are available, the risk of epidemics will always exist. The Black Death (or bubonic plague) accounted for at least 10 epidemics from 1400 to 1720. It is estimated to have killed some 25 million people, all in all. Smallpox killed and deformed millions in the middle of the seventeenth century in Europe. Meningitis caused huge public health problems in Brazil up to the mid-1970’s. AIDS and flu (the latter on a seasonal basis) continue to infect people in all countries. The exhibition Great epidemics, at the Butantan Institute’s Center for the Dissemination of Science, in São Paulo, concerns a subject that remains relevant to our days. “We want to inform and warn the public about the danger of epidemics”, explains Gláucia Colli Inglez, coordinator of the Microbiology Museum of the Butantan Institute and curator of the exhibition along with Alessandra Fernandes Bizerra and Milene Tino de Franco, the museum’s director.

“The population and those involved in the health field should certainly be concerned about epidemics”, says Isaias Raw, from the technical and scientific council of the Butantan Foundation. The idea behind the exhibition was his. He came up with it a few years ago, but it only came true now, thanks to FAPESP/Vitae support. The exhibition shows illustrated panels and five films of up to seven minutes each. Each one of these deals with one epidemic: plague, smallpox, meningitis, AIDS and influenza (flu). These films were made by filmmaker André Luiz de Luiz based on the script provided by the curators. They are didactic and full of images and of interviews with Raw himself, the physician Dráuzio Varella and the São Paulo state health secretary, Luiz Roberto Barradas Barata. All of them use simple language to talk about history, health, science and, above all, the importance of vaccination. The exhibition, which is free of charge, is to be taken to other areas in the São Paulo state capital in the near future.

The HIV virus contaminates more than 5 million people a year. The physician Dráuzio Varella, asks for care and prevention.

The infection was ascribed to miasmas and divine punishment. In 1894, Alexandre Yersin and Shibasaburo Kitasatu identified the agent responsible for the disease, the bacterium Yersinia pestis.

The Spanish flu killed some 40 million people in the first half of the twentieth century. Today, Isaias Raw advocates vaccination to prevent swine flu.

The meningitis epidemic was censured by the military regime for two years. According to Barradas, the São Paulo population was vaccinated over the course of 15 days.

Smallpox killed and deformed millions, but became extinct in 1984. This was the first time that an infectious disease was abolished from the face of the Earth thanks to vaccination.