Medical anthropologists examine epidemic outbreaks through numerous approaches. According to Joralemon, “Epidemics offer particularly vivid demonstrations of the interconnections between biological, social, and cultural components in the human experience of disease” (2010:29). Many times these approaches cannot function on their own accord and rely on each other to solve the epidemic. It is the job of the medical anthropologist to put all the pieces of the disease puzzle together.
When examining diseases and how they affect a community, it is important for medical anthropologists to use a biological or epidemiological approach to gather information about the disease or pathogen behind the epidemic. An epidemiological approach “views disease in ecological term(s) as the interaction between a pathogen(s) and its host(s), as this interaction is shaped by the conditions of a specific environment(s)” (Joralemon 2010:33). In using this approach, information gathered about the genetics of the disease help determine how it spreads, what the rate of transmission is, the ways it affects the body as well as ways to prevent the spread and heal an infected person. This approach gathers very practical and scientific information that needs to be deciphered in terms of the community. When looking at the cholera epidemics in South America in the early 1990s, it was important for world leaders to know how the disease was spreading, how fast it was spreading and how it affected the body. The strengths to using the biological/epidemiological approach are that the government is able to pinpoint sources of contamination and identify disease pathogens. However, a limitation to this approach is that it does not take into consideration the cultural, economical or political factors occurring in the community. It is only able to explain what the epidemic is not why the epidemic affects the community.
Medical anthropologists can use an ecological or evolutionary approach to learn about how an epidemic affects a community. This approach “analyzes the interaction between sociocultural patterns and the biological and environmental parameters with which humans operate” (Joralemon 2010:10). It encourages looking at all aspects of a community when examining an epidemic. In particular, it pays close attention to how humans use their environment to survive.
Returning to the cholera epidemic in South America during the 1990s, the ecological approach “highlights the impact of changing human demographic, economic and medical patterns on the bacteria’s evolutionary trajectory” (Joralemon 2010:36). It shows that as communities expand in size and space so do the pathogens that are naturally found in the environment. This approach demonstrates how important it is to consider the social and cultural influences in a community. The strengths to using an ecological/evolutionary approach are that it brings the environmental perspective of epidemics as well as more of a community...