Microbial jumps: Making space for relational geographies in emerging disease epidemiology

Authors: Hanna Ehrlich*, Yale University
Topics: Health and Medical, Applied Geography, Cultural and Political Ecology
Keywords: Infectious diseases, epidemiology, emerging diseases, relational geography, space
Session Type: Virtual Guided Poster
Day: 4/9/2021
Start / End Time: 8:00 AM / 9:15 AM
Room: Virtual 53
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


Epidemiologists describe pathogens as “jumping” between bodies. Microbial success depends not only on the ability to invade new hosts but also to exist in spaces between hosts, or to exploit close contact between them. Although invisible to the human eye, pathogens occupy and even create space between their hosts. This paper argues that epidemiology would benefit from considering relational space when describing disease transmission. Even sophisticated genomic and statistical tools neglect cultural, social, and economic influences on health and illness, and are inattentive to the interconnected and context-dependent relations between humans and other species. A relational approach to epidemiology, informed by geographical approaches, can help expose the way in which individuals are embedded in specific networks and relate to different spaces, providing unique opportunities for disease transmission. I provide examples of relational approaches to both longitudinal (between regions) and zoonotic (between species) disease jumps. First, through a case study on the spread of drug resistant malaria, I argue that a relational analysis of trans-oceanic networks can bring to light points of entry and exit of potential parasites, in both the movement of goods and people. Second, in a case study on SARS-CoV-2 emergence, I argue that global economic systems and actors produce their own regional environments. I close by laying out an alternative, critical epidemiology that takes into account connections between bodies (human and non-human), institutions, systems, and states across vast expanses of space and time.

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