Institute of Medicine Workshop Considers Violence as a Contagion

It was clear from the opening remarks shared by Dr. Patrick Kelley, Director of Global Health for the Institute of Medicine (IOM) part of the National Academy of Sciences, that the two-day (April 30 – May 1, 2012) workshop was a historic event. IOM convened the session in Washington DC last week to consider “Violence as a Contagion,” a concept that has long underscored the work of Cure Violence.

Dr. Kelley, speaking of the significance of the workshop told the story of John Snow, pioneer of public health and one of the founding fathers of epidemiology, who in 1854 traced the source of a deadly cholera outbreak in London’s Soho district that had claimed 500 lives by the time it was through. Snow, using investigative techniques now common to the field of public health, mapped the cases of the outbreak. Documenting the victims, place and time of the infection, Snow observed the clustering pattern around a water pump on Broad Street. In the years before the germ theory of disease had been developed, Snow’s intuitive understanding of the outbreak and his rigorous efforts tracking the disease to its source were incredibly innovative, forward thinking, and saved untold lives. (Check out author Steven Johnson on John Snow below)

Just as the micro-organisms causing the cholera in Snow’s investigation were invisible and largely misunderstood in 1854, so too are the means of transmitting violence invisible, and in our current age of super-max prisons and mass-incarceration, largely misunderstood. As Kelley observed, the forward thinking violence prevention experts assembled at the workshop may not yet have all the pieces to violence puzzle together, but are leading the way in identifying the processes that promote violence, the mechanisms needed to interrupt and prevent the contagion of violence, and what is necessary to facilitate a contagion of non-violence.

Valerie Maholmes of the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Developmentadded that she hoped the workshop would provide “a fresh look across types of violence,” allowing researchers to “break out of our silos to look broadly at types and treatments of the issue.”

To this end, the Forum brought together a dynamic interdisciplinary assemblage of professionals and experts. Dr. Gary Slutkin, Founder and Executive Director of Cure Violence and a member of the workshop’s planning committee, shared a broad overview of the Contagion of Violence and loaned his expertise in infectious disease to recognizing the clustering, spread and means of transmission for violence. Dr. Charlotte Watts from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine linked the contagion model to family violence; Dr. Madelyn Gould looked at the contagion in relation to self-directed violence and suicide, and Dr. Eric Dubow considered the contagion model in relation to collective political and ethnic violence.

In all, over two dozen experts in a wide variety of fields considered the contagion model as a way of re-understanding violence and more promisingly, as a way of interrupting and ending it.