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May 12, 2005

GSPH prof’s web site links international public health forces

If public health professors in Cairo or Charleston want to know about contemporary methods of monitoring disease, they might turn to Supercourse, a public health research web site created by Ronald LaPorte, professor of epidemiology at Pitt.

Supercourse provides lectures — some in multiple languages — boiled down into PowerPoint presentations on major public health issues, many of which focus on disease prevention. PowerPoint is used for several reasons, including its ease of localizing health presentations in a multitude of countries and its ubiquitous nature (“More people know PowerPoint than know the English language,” LaPorte quipped).

Supercourse is the offspring of the Global Health Network, a web site that inspired an international coalition of public health scholars established by LaPorte in 1993.

“We hope Supercourse improves health training and lectures worldwide,” said LaPorte, who also is director of disease monitoring and telecommunications for the World Health Organization (WHO) collaborating center at Pitt. “And the best way to accomplish that is to provide educators with lectures by experts. The goal is to make major improvements in the teaching of and prevention of disease and premature death.”

Having public health information accessible on the Internet is crucial in some countries. According to Eugene Shubnikov, an epidemiologist and cardiologist in Russia, providing information via the Internet fills a void. “There’s a lack of knowledge about prevention of non-communicable diseases among Russian medical personnel due to the long isolation of Russia from the rest of the world,” Shubnikov said. In addition to setting up his own public health Internet network with LaPorte’s help, Shubnikov has distributed a Supercourse CD with about 1,000 lectures throughout Russia and 14 other former Soviet Union republics, where public health is a burgeoning discipline.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration funded LaPorte’s early Internet efforts. Currently, Supercourse receives about $250,000 annually from the National Library of Medicine.

In April, LaPorte queried some members of Pitt’s academic community, via e-mail, to gauge interest and garner more participation in Supercourse. More than 450 University faculty members from 63 disciplines expressed interest in the Supercourse cyberspace phenomenon. He’s trying to attract faculty from a wider range of disciplines, hoping to expand his site from one offering primarily medical information to one hosting lectures from other disciplines, such as architecture and engineering, that can impact global health. For example, building codes in Florida affect what happens to people during a hurricane.

LaPorte has dubbed his new effort “Global pIT,” and said he hopes to obtain University support to increase the breadth of Supercourse.

Currently, Supercourse offers more than 2,200 PowerPoint lectures by over 1,000 researchers including six Nobel Prize winners and the current U.S. Surgeon General. According to LaPorte, more than 20,000 faculty members and public health officials from 151 countries receive the electronic Supercourse newsletter, which he and his colleagues produce biweekly. The newsletter is a way to keep in touch with the global network of health scholars, LaPorte explained. “We’re always fishing for knowledge and fishing for people to get into our network,” he said.

Supercourse’s predecessor, Global Health Network, galvanized the public health community’s interest worldwide in providing information to researchers and public health professionals.

The information highway was still a secondary road when LaPorte established the Global Health Network site: it was the Internet’s 400th web site, LaPorte noted. PC Magazine named the site as one of the top 100 best web sites in the mid-1990s.

LaPorte’s marriage of public health research and Internet technology was ahead of its time, confirmed Roberta Ness, chair of the Department of Epidemiology in the Graduate School of Public Health.

Whenever Ness travels abroad, she is amazed how many people know of Supercourse. “It’s had an extraordinary penetration worldwide and it has enhanced the quality of training public health practitioners internationally.”

At first blush, Supercourse seems to be merely a repository for scholarly lectures. But the web site has created a collective intelligence or a “smart mob,” according to LaPorte. “If somebody in Ghana wants to talk to someone who knows about HIV infections, there are about 300 experts associated with Supercourse,” he said.

Key to Supercourse’s mission is free access to the lectures. And that is no small matter in some developing countries where the per capita income might equal the cost of an annual subscription to a scholarly journal, according to LaPorte. “If you’re in Zimbabwe, you have a choice between reading Science or eating.”

Over the years, LaPorte has challenged the medical journals to distribute their information for free to health scholars in developing countries. He and some colleagues published a paper in The Lancet, the United Kingdom journal of medicine, about six years ago arguing for major publishers of medical journals to post their articles to a limited access computer server for developing countries. According to LaPorte, many medical journals are in the process of doing just that. “That actually is the accomplishment I’m most proud of — it will open up an enormous amount of information to scholars who really need it.”

Additionally, Supercourse offers “Just in Time” lectures to supplement breaking news stories on public health issues. After the tsunami hit Indonesia in December, LaPorte and other health researchers put together a Supercourse lecture on what a tsunami is. Many educators, who were on holiday break, would need the information to explain to students once everybody returned to the classroom, LaPorte realized.

Via the Internet, LaPorte and colleagues gathered information from the WHO, the Centers for Disease Control and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, creating two PowerPoint presentations within three days of the tsunami.

According to crude estimates, LaPorte said, the tsunami Supercourse lecture was incorporated into presentations given to 200,000-300,000 students in about 140 countries.

Supercourse collaborators include Faina Linkov, Mita Lovalekar and Sunita Dodani, all graduate and post-doctoral students in the Department of Epidemiology, and Shubnikov.

Supercourse can be accessed at For more information about Supercourse, contact LaPorte at

—Mary Ann Thomas

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