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Violence Spreads Just Like a Virus

Updated: Apr 24, 2020

"Violence isn't like a contagious disease; it is a contagious disease." -Gary Slutkin

Violent Conflict Is Contagious

Gary Slutkin is a physician, epidemiologist, and former head of the World Health Organization's (WHO) Intervention Development Unit. Epidemiologists, or "disease detectives" study diseases within populations of people and analyze what causes disease outbreaks, in order to treat existing diseases and prevent future outbreaks.

Gary worked in more than 20 countries, studying infectious diseases like cholera, HIV/AIDS, and tuberculosis. When he returned to the States in 1994, he found an acute problem: gun violence. He studied the issue and saw familiar patterns: "This is having behaving exactly like an infectious disease."

When he created visual data maps of violence, he noticed it spread in virtually identical patterns as infectious diseases: "This is the same kind of map, the same kind of clustering. Someone has picked this up from someone else, and they pass it on to someone else, and so on. Violence isn't like an infectious disease... it is an infectious disease."

Violent Conflict is a Public Health Problem

Gary explains that violent conflict is a public health problem, and should be treated like any other contagious disease. "The root cause of cholera is cholera," and "the root cause of violence is violence." Gary explains that "the definition of contagious is it produces more of itself, and how much you've been exposed is the predictor of whether you're likely to do it." He asserts that there's a reason why some communities are plagued by violent conflict.

Gary decided to approach this violence the same way he curbed cholera and AIDS - by convincing people to change their behaviors. And that doesn't happen by threat of punishment. Rather, he found that training community members to spread the message about safe behavior helped people rethink risky behavior. It took a cross-sector, collaborative approach to create real solutions.

In 2000, Gary started CeaseFire - later renamed Cure Violence - which trains and deploys outreach workers, or "violence interrupters" in high-risk communities. This program has also been used in Honduras, Iraq, Mexico, and other countries, and profiled in the acclaimed 2011 documentary, The Interrupters.

Gary launched this program in one of the most violent communities in Chicago, and it was quick to produce results, reducing shootings by 67% in its first year.

Today, we can learn from his ideas, build on his solution, and take this holistic, multi-disciplinary approach to address violent conflict in local communities around the world.


Watch Gary's Ted Talk: Let's Treat Violence Like a Contagious Disease

Listed to NPR: Researchers Begin To Look At Gun Violence As Public Health Issue

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