Course Examines Diseases that Changed the World

OGDEN, Utah – The Bubonic plague is making a comeback this semester—at least in one Weber State University classroom.

This fall, WSU microbiology professor Karen Nakaoka is teaching an honors course, “Perspectives in Life Sciences,” that examines a dozen diseases that have influenced social institutions and shaped the history of the world.

“The Bubonic plague has had major impacts on medicine, education, religion—even the genetics of our European ancestors,” Nakaoka said.

Irwin Sherman’s book “Twelve Diseases That Changed Our World” is the primary text for the course. The lethal lineup includes porphyria, hemophilia, blight, tuberculosis, cholera, small pox, influenza, malaria, Yellow fever, syphilis and AIDS, in addition to the Bubonic plague.

“These kinds of diseases prune our population,” Nakaoka said. “They change the makeup of people and society going forward.”

Unlike the introduction to public health courses Nakaoka regularly teaches, the honors course allows for a holistic approach to the topic, discussing the history of these maladies, microbiology’s role in spreading these diseases, and how biological systems have affected mankind. The course material features discussions about biology, cell structure, modes of transmission, public health and immunology.

With seven students enrolled in the class, which meets twice a week, Nakaoka uses a seminar format, blending lecture and discussion. She said some of the students majoring in history, political science and military science provide great perspective and insights on the topics being discussed.

Beyond developing a greater interest in biology, Nakaoka hopes her students will gain practical knowledge to use in their own lives, from the importance of vaccines, to ways to prevent disease, to precautions to take when using a public restroom.

“We go through each disease and the mechanisms of passage: How is it transmitted, what does it do to the body, how does it leave the body?” Nakaoka said. “Once you know that, you can look at interventions on how to avoid contracting a disease.”

Nakaoka notes that of the 12 diseases covered, 10 of them have treatments or preventative measures that have helped minimize or eliminate the disease. “Vaccines have helped 75 percent of these diseases become smaller public health issues.”

One class exercise will assign the students varying viewpoints and encourage them to debate the merits and usefulness of vaccines.

While Nakoaka contends the Bubonic plague may have had the greatest impact on world history, she said the lack of a vaccine makes AIDS the 21st century plague throughout regions of Asia and Africa.

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Karen Nakaoka, microbiology professor
801-626-7509 ·
John Kowalewski, director of Media Relations
801-626-7212 •