Held at the Royal Society of Medicine over two days, After the End of Disease brought together historians of medicine and global public health, anthropologists and sociologists with policy makers to think past the conventional narrative curve of epidemics and disease in general. The overall aim of the event was to initiate a fruitful discussion on how various academic analyses and perceptions of what happens after the end of disease can inform current global health policies of eradication and epidemic management, and in turn, how the experiences of practitioners in global public health may provide insight and further the understanding of the historical trajectories and ethnographic, and sociological studies of ending diseases.
The conference opened with a public event at the Wellcome Collection’s Reading Room: a screening of the director’s cut of In the Shadow of Ebola, a film by Gregg Mitman (U f Wisconsin) and Sarita Siegel (Alchemy Films). The film was followed by a roundtable discussion with the participation of the filmmakers Patricia Kingori (Oxford), Jessica Reinisch (Birkbeck) and Karen Wells (Birkbeck).
The following two days gave way to discussions on epidemic preparedness, failure, experiences and theoretical concepts of temporalities, and problematic beginnings as well as endings. The first panel opened the discussion by placing in the focus and questioning what we understand under the terms after, end and disease and why thinking critically about these definitions and concepts matter. Jessica Reinisch (Birkbeck) addressed the complexity and fluidity of the postwar era, Catherine Kudlick (U San Francisco) argued for a disability history perspective when considering the end of epidemics, while Julie Livingston (NYU) turned to comorbidity to interrogate disease categories. Zooming in on particular problems and diseases, subsequent panels addressed global health issues from WHO reports to Cold War politics of freezing smallpox specimens. Anthropologist Frederic Keck (CNRS) unpacked storage and stockpiling in global flu management as techniques of perpetual beginnings and endings of epidemics. Sociologist Andrew Lakoff (U Southern California) analysed the post-choc report of the WHO on the Ebola crisis and argued that it is as much of a tool for retrospective allocation of blame, as a tool of preparedness for unknown future outbreaks in mapping potential organizational responses. Several papers dealt with polio epidemics: historian Naomi Rogers (Yale) addressed disability activism that rested on the ending and forgetting of polio epidemics in the United States, while Stephen Bance (U College Dublin) presented the Irish perspective on polio rehabilitation and the blurred endings of the disease, Juan Rodriguez-Sanchez (U Salamanca) argued that post-polio syndrome is at once a disease that never ended and the beginning of a new one, and Nadav Davidovich and Anat Rosenthal (Ben Gurion U) interrogated definitions of an outbreak through the case of a recent Israeli vaccination campaign. Many of these papers pointed to populations that are left out of, or are neglected in narratives of the end of disease. Robert Aronowitz (U of Pennsylvania) turned to another aspect of exclusion in epidemic and disease endings and demonstrated structural global disparities in infectious diseases, cancer and public health problems like tobacco use that arise from diseases disappearing in one part of the world – but shifting to another. Tuberculosis, a (mostly) curable disease that has mostly vanished from the global North and remains a major global public health problem in the South was the focus of another set of papers. Anthropologist Bharat Venkat (Princeton) analysed scenarios of a post-antibiotic era in tuberculosis treatment in India, while historian Sarah Blacker (MPIWG) turned to the ethnic politics of tuberculosis control in Canada. Janina Kehr (U of Zurich) took the case of a French woman’s astonishment and bodily experience of being diagnosed with TB to embark on a philosophical approach in applying Agamben’s concept of messianic time to understanding the temporalities of disease. The consequences of the disappearance of certain diseases from the global epidemic landscape led several Katherine Vongsathorn (U of Warwick) recounted changing attitudes and access to care in leprosy in Uganda, health policy expert and medical anthropologist Jennifer Palmer (LSHTM/U of Edinburgh) discussed the global development and local uses of rapid test diagnosis in sleeping sickness, while Jeremy Greene (Johns Hopkins) and Dora Vargha (Birkbeck) introduced the concept of ‘newly neglected disease’ through an analysis of faltering access to diphtheria antitoxin and the decay of global pharmaceutical infrastructure. Others focused on representations of diseases and their endings. Joanna Radin (Yale) showed how certain elements of the Cold War have been perpetuated in the frozen smallpox vials in Russian and American freezers, and placed fears associated with the return of the epidemic within science fiction, while Lukas Engelmann (Cambridge) analysed visual representations of AIDS and its “unseeing”. Many papers addressed the epidemic narrative in a broader sense and discussed beginnings of disease together with their endings. The complexity of distinguishing beginnings and endings of epidemic cycles was the focus of the paper presented by Christos Lynteris (Cambridge), Robert Peckham (Hong Kong U) showed convergences of beginnings and endings through SARS in SAR (“Special Administrative Region”, the official status of Hong Kong).
The panels, conversations and debates showed the manifold ways in which rethinking the epidemic narrative can contribute both to academic scholarship and to global health. Combining approaches from anthropology, sociology, philosophy, history and visual culture, the discussions marked the beginning of a meaningful, interdisciplinary collaboration that will surely continue in the future.