Course of Conversation: Infectious Disease Threats to Global Health Security

Jennifer Nuzzo, DrPH, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, teaches the Infectious Disease Threats to Global Health Security elective as visiting faculty in the department of environmental health and engineering at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. The course will be offered for the first time in spring 2018.

In the following Q&A, Jennifer explains what students should expect from her course and why the material is so valuable to future public health leaders.

What are the learning objectives of your Infectious Disease Threats to Global Health Security course?

Jennifer Nuzzo, DrPH

Jennifer Nuzzo, DrPH

My goal for this course is to help students understand why infectious disease threats pose a risk to the security of nations. As we have seen in recent years with events like the Zika epidemic, the Ebola epidemic in west Africa, and prior to that SARS and MERS, emerging infectious diseases keep popping up and causing harm to public health as well as to economies. We want to explore what the specific impacts of these events are, and what public health practitioners can do to ensure that nations are ready to prevent them—or, if they can’t prevent them, to mitigate them when they occur.

We think this is relevant because we’ve seen an increase in the frequency of emerging infectious disease events. Unfortunately, that means public health professionals will likely be involved in one of these events at some point in their career. It’s valuable for public health students to understand the consequences not only so they can improve response, but also so they can convey to political leadership in a convincing way the importance of preparedness and appropriate resource allocation.

Who should take the course?

Every public health student should take this class. One of the themes of the class we’re going to explore is that increasingly we’re seeing that all public health is global health, so anyone who’s interested in US public health has to recognize that disease threats can start abroad and have impacts at home.

Folks who want to focus on improving public health globally, even if you’re interested in routine public health conditions like HIV or TB, or non-communicable diseases, that work can be jeopardized if a large-scale epidemic emerges.

How do infectious diseases threaten global health security?

Emerging infectious diseases threaten global health security in myriad ways. They have the immediate effect of impacting health, causing illness and potentially death, but there are secondary and tertiary effects on societies, on the ability of people to be able to work and provide for their families, and threats to economies—particularly when measures are taken like closing boarders or shutting down travel and trade.

There are also political effects. How a society responds to these threats, whether that response is effective, can impact public confidence in government.

Subject matter aside, what’s unique about this course?

We’re going to spend some time talking about the broader themes and political dimensions of public health events, more than students experience in their other classes. The foundation public health education gives students the methods to describe infectious disease events and the tools to respond to them. This is essential, obviously. I hope to build on those themes with a multi-faceted approach to the infectious disease problem: you need to know what strategies work and what strategies don’t; you need to know the consequences of making the wrong decisions and what the wrong decisions are; and you need to know how to interface with political leadership so policymakers are supportive of what needs to be done and don’t undermine the overall response.

In addition, I want the class to be highly relevant to the world that we’re living in. I’m committed to tailoring the material in the course to the events that we are witnessing in the world. As new events occur, we will incorporate that into our class and encourage students to interpret the world around them as it’s currently happening.

What’s the most important key takeaway for students?

Understanding how health is important for broader societal goals like improving economies and strengthening the defense of countries. Public health professionals have a role to play in the security of nations and protecting economies, and I want to help them understand what that role is so they can then make stronger arguments for the value of investing in public health.

What got you interested in work on the prevention of infectious diseases?

When I graduated with a Master of Public Health in 2001, I took a job in New York City as an epidemiologist. Shortly after the attacks of Sept. 11, what had previously been a small component of my job—maintaining a surveillance system that had a potential application to bioterrorism—became a large part of the focus of my job. It was that event that particularly underscored for me the interdependency between health and security.

Since then, my colleagues and I at the Johns Hopkins Center of Health Security have worked every day to demonstrate to political leaders that health is a vital component of national security.


Jennifer Nuzzo can be reached by email at and on Twitter at @JenniferNuzzo.