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Meera Senthilingam - Four Way Interview

Meera Senthilingam is currently Content Lead at health start-up Your,MD and was formerly International Health Editor at CNN. She is a journalist, author and public health researcher and has worked with multiple media outlets, such as the BBC, as well as academic institutions, including the LSHTM and Wellcome Trust. She has Masters Degrees in Science Communication and the Control of Infectious Diseases and her interests lie in communicating global health issues to the general public through journalism and working with global health programmes. Her academic research to date has focused on tuberculosis, particularly the burden of drug-resistant tuberculosis and insights into the attitudes and behaviours of the people most affected. Her new book is Outbreaks and Epidemics: battling infection from measles to coronavirus.

Why science?

I have always found science fascinating and have always had a strong passion for it. My friends in high school used to find it amusing to introduce me to people with the intro ‘This is Meera. She doesn’t eat beef but she loves science!’. That probably sounds weird to anyone outside of that social group, but it was a long-running intro and does kind of sum me up! (I am Hindu, which is why I don’t eat beef, in case you’re wondering). 

I was always particularly interested in biology, specifically human biology, and developed a love for understanding the workings of the human body early on. I remember my biology teacher once saying I might not do so well in my biology GCSE and it spurred me on to prove her wrong! Now I have made the subject my career – and I am still passionate about every story and project I work on. Understanding why and how things affect us, and helping others understand this, drives me. Within this, I developed a special interest in infectious diseases because they have this ability to penetrate all barriers and affect everyone equally, and there are just so many of them. There are also so many social and political elements to the control of infectious diseases and how they affect different populations, which are just fascinating.

Why this book?

Outbreaks and epidemics affect everyone in one way or another (never more so than right now) and I really wanted to provide an overview of the area and to help people understand how infectious diseases work. The core of any outbreak response is good epidemiological practice – finding cases, isolating them, tracing their contacts and putting them under quarantine. This requires cooperation by the populations affected and their cooperation depends on how much these populations understand about the situation and disease at hand. I wanted to provide this understanding in a short, engaging book. I also care deeply about the fact that the poorest and most vulnerable populations are always the worst affected by infectious diseases and a lot of people just don’t realize how much worse they are affected. I wanted to provide a window into this through the book and highlight that some diseases people think have long gone are still lingering on in the poorest communities, despite having a treatment or vaccine or being easily preventable with good hygiene and sanitation.

What’s next?

All sorts, really! I’ve joined a start-up where I hope to deliver accurate, understandable health information to people unable to access healthcare easily. I still love reporting on global health issues, such as drug-resistant TB and developments in the field of HIV, and of course the coronavirus, and I hope to write another book. The current book touched on a lot of topics and I would like to dig deeper into one or two of them in another book to highlight, say, the epidemiology of one disease over time, why it persists, and the personal narratives of people affected. Or maybe the complexities around vaccine development.

What’s exciting you at the moment?

Well, we are living through a pandemic right now… While that does not excite me, it does fascinate me immensely. I feel like I have written so many features over the years about whether we are ready for the next pandemic, what the next pandemic will be, the horrendous statistics of the 1918 Spanish ‘flu…and now, here we are. Everyone knew a pandemic was inevitable; programmes were set up to address one and yet so many countries stalled when it arrived and just an exemplary few can say they handled things the best they could. Watching the social and political elements play out has got me constantly thinking and reading and wondering what is going to happen next. Thankfully programmes such as CEPI and efforts to plan for Disease X were underway and science has enabled a lot during this pandemic, but at the end of the day these situations are about more than the science. As a science communicator, however, I am constantly looking out for who has got the messaging right and listening to what people have taken away from the news and information they receive. I am hooked.


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