First-Year Seminar on Plagues University of Oregon

This first-year seminar, Plagues: The Past, Present, and Future of Infectious Diseases, at the University of Oregon examines diseases such as malaria, bubonic plague, smallpox, polio, measles, and AIDS. In addition to the biology of the diseases, it also addresses their effects on populations and their influence on the course of history. Students investigate the conditions that influence the rate of spread of contagious diseases, and ways to prevent it. They discuss a number of ethical issues that arise in treating the sick, as well as development of policies intended to halt epidemics. Infectious diseases are used to introduce important ideas and issues from the life sciences and a variety of other disciplines. Approaches include reading assignments, film presentations, discussions, writing, and small group activities and projects.

One segment of the course uses readings, discussions, computer modeling and lab activities to help students understand (1) how the immune system works and why in some cases it doesn’t; (2) why antibiotics work with some organisms but not others, and why many organisms are becoming resistant to antibiotics; (3) why so many new diseases seem to be suddenly appearing; (4) how vaccines work and why in some cases they don’t; (5) how infectious diseases are transmitted; (6) why and how disease-causing organisms make humans sick; and (7) why most infectious diseases are usually not lethal.

Another segment examines the issue from a global perspective. Students study current global trends for diseases such as AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis. They research the public health policies of international organizations and of representative countries; try to place these patterns into historical perspective; and develop some predictive models of the social, political, economic, and demographic consequences of these patterns.

A third segment examines what is happening locally. With the help of guest speakers, field trips, and group projects, they examine public health policies and practices in the state of Oregon, the city of Eugene, and at the University of Oregon. For example, they learn about vaccination and other public health programs offered at the Student Health Center and about the treatment of AIDS patients in Lane County.

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