Sonia Shah Contemplates the Future of Pandemics at the 2016 Saward Lecture

Sonia Shah Contemplates the Future of Pandemics at the 2016 Saward Lecture

Caption: CHR Director Mary Durham welcomes Sonia Shah to Portland for the 2016 Saward Lecture.

The acclaimed science journalist explains the mechanisms of disease outbreaks.

Sonia Shah, an acclaimed science journalist and speaker known for her in-depth investigations into a wide variety of health-related global issues, visited Portland on Sept. 21 for the 26th Saward Lecture. The lecture, hosted by the Center for Health Research with support from Kaiser Permanente’s Community Benefit Initiative, was held once again at the Newmark Theatre in downtown Portland.

Ms. Shah’s talk was based on her most recent book, Pandemic: Tracking Contagions, from Cholera to Ebola and Beyond. With a compelling mix of storytelling and informative graphics, she explained how infectious diseases such as cholera have dealt repeated blows to human communities over the centuries—often as the unintended result of human activity and uninformed decision-making.

As an example, Ms. Shah described the rapid adoption of flush toilets in London in the 19th  century. Working under the assumption that foul odors were the cause of disease, many Londoners installed indoor plumbing so that human waste could be swiftly removed from the home. But this waste didn’t go far: it ended up in the public water supply, delivering pathogens back into people’s homes and triggering new outbreaks of cholera—which prompted even more Londoners to install flush toilets.

Such unintended consequences played out for quite some time before scientists came to understand the true causes and means of transmission of infectious diseases.

Ms. Shah gave a stark assessment of the risk we face in confronting worldwide pandemics in the future. Human activities such as deforestation and expansion into formerly wild spaces create new opportunities for pathogens to take hold in humans and spread. But she sounded a positive note, too, citing the potential of technological advances to help us predict and rapidly respond to future outbreaks.

An Expert Navigator

In her introductory remarks at the Newmark, CHR Director Mary Durham praised Sonia Shah as the kind of “expert navigator” we need to understand the ramifications—and the politics—of infectious disease, climate change, and other major problems that play out on a global scale.

“In her books, magazine articles, and speaking engagements, Sonia Shah brings together great research and great empathy to tell powerful stories that we need to hear,” said Dr. Durham.

About the Saward Lecture

The Saward Lecture series is named after Ernie Saward, MD (1914–89), the region’s medical director from 1948 to 1969. In the early 1960s, he established the Medical Care Research Unit, which later became the Center for Health Research.

Founded in recognition of Dr. Saward’s contributions in medicine and science, the Saward Lectures feature individuals of national or international stature presenting their visions of the social mission of medicine. The series focuses on the intersection of health research, health care delivery, and social policy.

Thanks to the generous support of Kaiser Permanente’s Community Benefit Initiative, the Center for Health Research is able to present the Saward Lecture free to the public. To be added to our mailing list for next year’s lecture, please send an email to

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