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Stopping Pandemics: Larry Brilliant on TED.com

Posted by: Jenny Zurawell

Today we present a fine 2006 reserve from physician, epidemiologist and TED Prize winner Larry Brilliant on stopping pandemics. Larry Brilliant’s background is admittedly “unconventional”, but it is precisely his avant-garde approach to life that formed the mise en scène for participating in extraordinary, world-changing projects. As a doctor in the early 1970s he joined a cross-continent hippie bus tour, spanning from San Francisco to England, in the film Medicine Ball Caravan. Brilliant then traveled over the Khyber Pass to India and studied at a Himalayan monastery…until his guru advised him to join the World Health Organization campaign to eradicate the small pox pandemic. In 1974 small pox broke out in India, so Brilliant joined a massive 150,000-person WHO campaign to conduct an old-fashioned door-to-door inquiry (jocularly referred to by Brilliant as “the surveillance system of the 1970s”) as to whether anyone in the home had contracted the virus. In order to eradicate the virus, each case of the disease had to be identified and contained, and after over 1 billion door-to-door visits, Brilliant and the team achieved the first disease eradication in history in 1980, when Brilliant presided over the last killer case of small pox. Working on the small pox campaign, Brilliant discovered the imperative for early detection surveillance systems and early response to diseases. Brilliant applied the lessons of surveillance and epidemiology to blindness and founded the Seva Foundation, which last year alone restored sight to more than 500,000 people worldwide.

For Brilliant’s TED Prize wish, he decided to capitalize on the lessons of early detection and early response to create INSTEDD, a global early-warning system to detect and respond to budding pandemics. Brilliant wanted to build upon the excellent work of an existing organization, GPHIN, which, through the process of web crawling discovered SARS and prevented it from reaching pandemic level. INSTEDD seeks to optimize today’s technologies so everyone can benefit from life-saving information. Currently INSTEDD is working on a major project in Southeast Asia to determine how new or existing software tools can help find diseases sooner and facilitate a collaborative response.

In 2006 Brilliant was appointed as the Executive Director of Google.org, Google’s $2 billion philanthropic arm that invests in some for-profit and not-for-profit projects such as renewable energy and pandemic prediction. This April, Brilliant left Google.org to be president of the Skoll Urgent Threats Fund, a group founded by Jeff Skoll, president of eBay, to tackle climate change, water scarcity and pandemics. Brilliant will remain an advisor to Google.org, which has a history of collaboration with Skoll’s organization that Brilliant hopes to further develop.

Twitter URL: http://on.ted.com/2L

Watch Larry Brilliant’s talk on TED.com where you can download this TEDTalk, rate it, comment on it and find other talks and performances from our archive of 475+ TEDTalks.

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