Lesson Plans

Exploring Past Public Health Emergencies Around the World

Collage of images from reporting by Jon Cohen (top and bottom left), Sonia Shah (top right), and Emily Baumgaertner (bottom right). United States, 2019.


By the end of this lesson, students will be able to... 

  • Describe key details and moments from reporting on past and present public health crises
  • Summarize news articles by explaining the evolution of key ideas and themes
  • Analyze both current events about the spread of COVID-19 and variations in how it's reported across different news outlets 
  • Create original artwork amplifying the stories of individuals and communities affected by public health challenges 

Lesson Overview: 

Step 1: Using a printable or fillable PDF worksheet (pages 1-4), students track details from one of more of the articles below. 

Step 2: Students use details from the news articles for writing and research activities about public health emergencies past and present. (pages 5-6 of the worksheet above). 

Extension: Here, find a list of journalists who may be available to speak with your class virtually about their reporting on public health emergencies and build on what they students learned as part of this lesson.

News Articles for this Lesson:

  1. Contagion in New York City: 1832: This article by Sonia Shah for Discourse in Progress shares a short history of an 1800s cholera outbreak in New York City. [PDF][DOC]
  2. ‘It Became Part of Life’: How Haiti Curbed Cholera: This article from Jacob Kushner and Allison Shelley for The Guardian describes how an earthquake in 2010 led to conditions that facilitated the spread of cholera. It also outlines ways that communities worked together to stop the cholera outbreak. [PDF], [DOC]
  3. What We Can Learn from the French About Fighting Lyme Disease: This article and podcast by David Scales for WBUR offers an overview of the French effort to combat Lyme disease and of the systemic advantages countries like France have in combating public health issues. [PDF], [DOC]
  4. How Rwanda, Once Torn by Genocide, Became a Global Anti-AIDS Leader: This transcript of a short PBS NewsHour segment by Jon Cohen outlines how Rwanda’s build one of the most successful anti-AIDS campaigns in Africa. [PDF], [DOC]
  5. Running an Ebola Clinic in Sierra Leone is all about Containment -- and Chlorine: This short article by Erika Check Hayden for WIRED describes how Doctors Without Borders set up facilities to combat the spread of Ebola in Sierra Leone. [PDF], [DOC]
  6. How Ebola Found Fertile Ground in Sierra Leone’s Chaotic Capital: Article by Amy Maxmen for National Geographic that outlines conditions that led to the spread of Ebola in 2014 and 2015. [PDF], [DOC]
  7. Zika’s Never-Ending Emergency: This article by Poonam Daryani, published in the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health Magazine, describes the experiences of mothers in Brazil whose children have contracted the Zika virus. [PDF], [DOC]
  8. Fight Against Zika Virus Makes Haiti Key Battleground: This article by Jamie McGee and Larry McCormack in The Tenneseean describes the causes of the Zika virus, and ways that scientists in Haiti tracked conditions that could support spread of the disease. [PDF], [DOC]
  9. As Congo’s Globe-Threatening Yellow Fever Epidemic Explodes, People Ask ‘Where Is the Vaccine?’: This article by Emily Baumgaertner in The Washington Post outlines efforts to prevent the spread of yellow fever in summer 2016. [PDF], [DOC]
  10. South Africa: TB Community Borrowing a Page from HIV/AIDS: This article by Jon Cohen for Science magazine describes new methods of preventing the spread of tuberculosis. [PDF], [DOC]
  11. Fighting Polio Amid the Chaos of Syria’s Civil War: This article by Jason Motlagh for National Geographic magazine describes efforts to prevent the spread of polio in Syria. [PDF], [DOC]
  12. An Elusive Threat: Experts Strategize Ways to Modernize Leprosy Detection and Tracking in Brazil: This article by Anton Delgado, published on the Pulitzer Center website, describes the steps public health professionals and government officials are taking to combat the spread of leprosy in Brazil. [PDF], [DOC]

Some useful vocabulary for this lesson: 

  • Headline: a head of a newspaper story or article usually printed in large type and giving the gist of the story or article that follows

  • News outlet: The name of the publication (newspaper, tv show, online organization, etc.) that published the story or article

  • Journalist: a person who researches and tells stories for publication in a news outlet

  • Public health: the science and art of preventing disease, prolonging life, and promoting health through the organized efforts and informed choices of society, organizations, public and private communities, and individuals

  • Infectious disease: a disease (as influenza, malaria, meningitis, rabies, or tetanus) caused by the entrance into the body of pathogenic agents or microorganisms (as bacteria, viruses, protozoans, or fungi) which grow and multiply there

  • Epidemic: an outbreak of disease that spreads quickly and affects many individuals at the same time : an outbreak of epidemic disease

Instructions for Summarizing and Analyzing News Articles:

Here is a PDF version of the worksheet for this lesson, and here is a fillable Microsoft Word version. The directions for summarizing and analyzing news articles (pages 1-4) are as follows:

  1. Choose at least two of the above pieces of reporting, and complete a reporting summary for each. Use the boxes to summarize and analyze news stories from journalists who have covered public health challenges. Fill out one reporting summary for each article you read.

  2. Use your notes from the reporting summaries to complete the extension activities to analyze public health reporting below.

Extension Activities: 

 The activities below are highlighted on pages 5-6 of the worksheet for this lesson. To complete these activities, students should summarize and analyze at least two of the news articles above using the printable worksheet for this lesson. 

Option 1. Create a resource to inform and inspire

Develop a resource for your own community that shares what you learned from one of the articles you read. Consider the following as you create your resource:

  • What elements could you use from the article that would help inform and impassion your community?
  • What additional information and resources might you need to get your community engaged? What is your ultimate goal for the resource? What do you want your community to feel/think about/do as a result of engaging with your resource?
  • What is the best way to share this information with your community? (Social media post? Billboard? Pamphlet?

Share your resource with Pulitzer Center by tagging @pulitzercenter on social media, or by emailing it to education@pulitzercenter.org.

Option 2: Essay analyzing reporting on the coronavirus

Consult several news outlets to research and write an essay about the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19). Use the following questions to structure your essay:

  • How is COVID-19 transmitted?
  • How has the disease spread, and where has it spread?
  • How do experts say the following groups of people can help stop the spread of disease?
    • Individuals
    • Public health professionals
    • The government
  • What variations do you see in how the virus is being reported on for different news outlets?
    • Who is quoted and cited in different pieces? What information do they share?
  • How does the reporting on coronavirus compare with the news articles you read about past epidemics?
  • How do you recommend that the public continue to update themselves about the spread of coronavirus, and efforts to stop the spread?

Option 3: Art amplifying the voices of those affected by infectious diseases

Which individuals featured in the articles you read are you still thinking about? Whose stories stuck out to you? A person affected by an infectious disease? A public health official who conducted research and/or outreach to stop the spread of an infectious disease? Use the steps below to create a work of art online, or by hand, that shares that person’s story.

  1. From the articles you read from Pulitzer Center journalists, or articles you have read on your own about the coronavirus, make a list of people whose stories stuck out to you.
  2. Select at least one person from your list, and make a list of details and quotes from that person’s story.
  3. Use those details/quotes to inspire an original art piece (painting, comic, digital artwork) that reflects that person’s story. Email your piece to education@pulitzercenter.org.
Educator Notes: 

Common Core Standards: 


Determine a central idea of a text and how it is conveyed through particular details; provide a summary of the text distinct from personal opinions or judgments.


Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including figurative, connotative, and technical meanings; analyze the impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone, including analogies or allusions to other texts.


Analyze a complex set of ideas or sequence of events and explain how specific individuals, ideas, or events interact and develop over the course of the text.

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