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How Treating Violence As A Disease Could Be Effective At Curing Epidemic

Homicide is the leading cause of death for African-American men aged 15 to 34 in the United States. It’s the third-leading cause for all men in that age group, according the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In recent years, there’s been a shift in many communities toward treating violence as a disease, and employing tried-and-true public health methods as treatment. And recent studies show it’s working.

Dr. Gary Slutkin is a physician and infectious disease control specialist at the University of Illinois Chicago. He’s also founder and executive director of Cure Violence, a not-for-profit whose goal is to employ public health methods to curb violence in Chicago and around the country. Slutkin (@GSlutkin) joins Here & Now‘s Robin Young to discuss his work.

Interview Highlights

On how violence is similar to a contagious disease

“Violence fits the definition of disease, and it fits the definition of contagious. The dictionary definition of disease is that is has characteristics, signs and symptoms, and that it causes morbidity and mortality, meaning that it causes injuries or dysfunction or death. And the definition of contagious simply means that it causes more of itself.”

On why this is medical work, rather than police work

“It’s public health, and the way that public health works is that you have health workers, and health workers are the ones who have the access to people whose behaviors you want to help change. So we have sex workers reaching sex workers, if you’re talking about HIV/AIDS. You’re talking about moms who are reaching moms for breast feeding or nutrition, refugees reaching refugees, and various situations possibly related to cholera or tuberculosis. Here you have people who used to be involved in violent behavior now helping to access the people who are doing it, or thinking about doing it.


“So this is a basic, essential, public health technology. It’s the same thing with Ebola. They tried police responses to Ebola, and it spread. It wasn’t until there were health workers who could talk to people on why not to touch the person who is sick, how to bury safely… all these behaviors that we deal with in health — violent behaviors, sexual behavior, hand washing or sanitation — they are very difficult behaviors to change. Violence, by the way, is not one of the harder behaviors to change. Smoking behavior is much harder, and sexual behavior is much harder. The difficulty we’re having in the realm of violent behavior, really relates to the public’s understanding of it, because it’s still being characterized as some kind of a moralistic problem, rather than a scientific, health-based problem. And we used to do this with other issues in health, too.”

On whether the approach is working

“Chicago is the absolute proof of this [working], because what is being seen right at this moment in Chicago, is the discontinuation of the Cure Violence approach in Chicago, which is called ‘Cease Fire’ there. Cure Violence was discontinued in March of 2015 as a result of the state not having a budget. Cure Violence went from 14 communities to one. Now what about the one community, where it has continued? In that community, the violence has continued to go down.”

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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