The newest exhibit at the National Museum of Natural History is, in a word, terrifying.
Ebola, Zika, HIV and SARS are just some of the infectious diseases highlighted in “Outbreak: Epidemics in a Connected World,” where visitors confront conditions that fuel outbreaks and learn about extraordinary efforts to save lives.
From the ceiling hangs a giant mosquito, a not-so-subtle reminder of the insect that has affected the world by spreading Zika, dengue, yellow fever, chikungunya, West Nile virus and other dangerous diseases.
Other collections show ticks, fleas, bugs and stuffed bats. An alcohol-pickled duck from 1916 is known to have carried the same genetic sequence of influenza A found in those who suffered from the 1918 flu pandemic.
In another display, a mannequin dressed in a chemical protective suit is used as a stand-in for medical workers who responded to the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa. A reported 881 workers contracted the disease while treating tens of thousands of Africans. More than 11,300 people died.
“The presentation in this hall offers a stark demonstration of human suffering that infectious diseases have brought on communities throughout the world,” museum director Kirk Johnson said Wednesday during a preview of the exhibit. “Nonetheless, there are messages of hope and encouragement. … It is important that we show how we meet the challenges presented by epidemics and pandemics.”
Opening Friday, the exhibit marks the 100th anniversary of the great influenza pandemic, which took the lives of 50 million to 100 million people around the world, about 3 percent to 5 percent of the global population.
“It kept people apart,” says a quote from William Sardo Jr., who was 6 at the time. “There was an aura of constant fear that you lived through from getting up in the morning to going to bed at night.”
The exhibit will be open for three years, and the museum estimates it will receive nearly 10 million visitors. Its overarching theme connects the health of animals, humans and the environment, and shows how they can inflame or overcome an outbreak.
A key contributor to the displays on diseases and medical interventions is Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, whose early work with HIV carriers created a template for how viral infections are understood and treated today.
In opening remarks at the museum Wednesday, he said the exhibit seemed like a dream looking back on his life’s work.
“It started off with HIV, which 37 years now I’ve been involved in HIV, and then looking around it is such a remarkably accurate evolution of emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases,” Dr. Fauci said.
The exhibit traces the mysterious emergence of an illness killing gay men across the U.S. in the 1980s and the battle for public opinion to recognize the impact of AIDS and the need for a large-scale response.
Dr. Fauci and colleagues identified HIV and developed antiretroviral treatments that improved life expectancy rates for those infected. People initially were dying of AIDS within one year of infection; today, they can live for decades.
The study of how the immune system responds to HIV has been instrumental in developing vaccines: A universal flu vaccine is undergoing human trials.
“We have the science for it. We know what to do,” Dr. Fauci said. “Now we have to get it done.”
The infectious diseases exhibit joins the museum’s collection of more than 145 million other objects from the world of natural history, including dinosaur fossils, precious gems and cultural artifacts.