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ChangingMinds Blog! > Blog Archive > 26-Apr-15


Sunday 19-April-15

Epidemiology, Disease and Crime

Epidemiology is the study of how diseases spread. Of course there are biological factors about the workings of viruses, bacteria and the human body. Another factor, that is not always realized, is the spread of disease is also affected by how we behave. What we do can make diseases spread far and fast or help to contain the outbreak.

Dr Gary Slutkin is an epidemiologist who wondered if he could treat violent crime in the same way as disease. There does not seem to be an obvious connection between the two, yet if you think more about the dimension of how we behave, then maybe it starts to make sense. Slutkin was remarkably successful in making this leap, initially in Chicago as an approach called Ceasefire and later a widespread movement called Cure Violence.

One of the basic ways that disease spreads is when people have contact with a diseased person. Disease thus spreads in a chain of connections. A similar things happens as violence begets violence and it becomes normalized within a society. Slutkin took the principle of interrupting transmission of disease, breaking the chain of infection, and applied it to violence. A way he did this was to train trusted members of the community in preventing retaliation and mitigating conflict, interrupting it before it spilled into violence. They also follow up to prevent simmering conflicts flaring up again.

Another key factor in spreading disease is the a few people can have a big effect. For example, in its early days, HIV spread far through the profligate actions of a single aircrew member. Later, truck drivers who visited prostitutes added to the rapid spread of the disease. When such people are identified in the spread of an infection, targeting them can have a disproportionate effect in bringing the spread of the disease under control. The Cure Violence adaptation of this is to target high-risk individuals, directly working with them to reduce their easy tendency to conflict and violence. This may require intensive one-to-one treatment, but again this preventative approach can pay dividends and save lives.

A third way that disease is spread is via community norms. For example Ebola, which is highly contagious just after death, spread widely in West Africa through burial rites that included touching corpses. When the communities were taught of the extreme dangers of this, the practice reduced sharply, helping significantly to contain the disease. In places where violent crime is high and often accepted as normal, this means working with leaders and groups in the community to help shape abhorrence of crime rather than accepting it as a norm.

One thing that this shows is that we can improve one area by seeking lessons in another where we may not naturally look. By keeping a creative and curiously open mind, many of your problems may find surprising answers.

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