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Paul Offit

PCSJS Portfolio's picture

Paul Offit’s work in vaccine development does not have an obvious connection to Peace, Conflict, and Social Justice studies, beyond the immediate social justice implications of providing the rotavirus vaccine he developed to children around the world.  But when I heard Offit speak at Bryn Mawr in April, 2009 I drew immediate connections to the Peace and Conflict Studies field.  Offit has become a controversial figure in some communities of parents whose children have autism, due to his outspoken criticism against celebrities like Jenny McCarthy who draw a link between autism and routine childhood vaccines.  Such claims are largely unfounded, and I think that Offit is right to actively dispel these myths, because the risks associated with a resurgence of childhood diseases like measles and rubella is much greater than the almost null chance that the MMR vaccine causes autism.

But, as Offit was talking about this one specific example of people not trusting epidemiological data, which looks at population trends, rather than actual “proof,” I immediately began to think about other similar skepticism around issues like HIV.  In my job at ASIAC, I often face the second-hand stigma that people living with HIV deal with on a daily basis.  Around the world, many people are denied basic human rights due to their HIV status, even though all available scientific data proves that the disease is not airborne, and nobody can contract the virus by touching or being near somebody who is HIV-positive.  Just like with the autism-vaccine controversy, scientific research can be a tough sell to people who are scared and do not understand the legitimacy of scientific modes of inquiry.  I think that public health research can play an important role in many different social justice fights, but the effectiveness of research is limited by the amount of people who do not trust it.  So what responsibility do researchers have to making their process and findings accessible and easy to understand?  Is that even their responsibility?  Offit also raised the issue of public policy, explaining that if scientific information is not well communicated to the public, or even remains completely inaccessible to some, policy will be based on myth rather than scientific evidence. This is seen around the world with regards to stigmatized diseases like HIV and leprosy, and there are no clear solutions.  What would it take to translate medical jargon to a public with a wide range of educational backgrounds and literacy skills? TV showsRadio showsPuppet theater?


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