Originally created 04/17/99

Exhibit fights illnesses with knowledge



NEW YORK -- People are echoing a collective "eeeww!!" at the site of infectious disease at work at the American Museum of Natural History.

An exhibit called Epidemic! The World of Infectious Disease explains the cause, spread and control of disease, ranging from the deadly ebola virus to the common cold.

"All of us have been infected by a cold or flu virus; some of us may have contracted Lyme disease or hepatitis; many have lost a friend or a loved one to AIDS," says Ellen V. Futter, the museum's president.

"The message of Epidemic! is one of hope -- that in understanding the science behind these (diseases) ... we will gain an ever-stronger appreciation of the natural world in which we live and how we can best co-exist with it."

Combining interactive computer programs and traditional museum displays, the exhibit begins with environmental changes believed to cause disease, using the May 1993 hantavirus outbreak that killed five people in the Southwest's Four Corners area as an example.

Digital mice run along the museum's baseboards and a figure farming a field demonstrate that the hantavirus is contracted by humans when they inhale dust contaminated by mouse saliva, droppings, urine or nesting material.

"We're trying to remove the `eeeww' aspect. This is an issue people are interested in and, more importantly, need to know about," says Marlo Jo Brickman, the exhibit's concept director.

French chemist Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch, the scientist who identified the anthrax virus, are among the scientists and doctors featured in the exhibit's research lab. Several interactive slide presentations allow visitors to get a look at E. coli bacteria and Giardia lamblia, associated with contaminated food or water.

On a recent day Emilia Maynard beckoned onlookers in the lab to look through a microscope for a glimpse at bacteria.

"It's not contagious. I promise. These are good germs," she said. Few took her up on the offer.

The hum of an air-conditioning unit sets the tone for a portion of the exhibit recalling the 1976 outbreak of Legionnaire's disease in a Philadelphia hotel. More than 180 people were infected by the disease, which was traced to a polluted air-conditioning unit.

A handful of interactive displays allow visitors to investigate a fictional outbreak of Lyme disease in Brooklyn, focusing on the importance of links in the cases.

"Once we know the reason why disease happens, we can know how to control it through a science and a social element, and these two elements working together will be the real way to prevent it," Ms. Maynard says.

The last portion of the exhibit focuses on prevention and treatment, using the AIDS outbreak as an example. It features strides made in medical research and social behavior, such as public service announcements encouraging protected sex.

The exhibit runs through Sept. 6.