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Social medicine

14 July 2017

New work undertaken by postdoctoral medical anthropologist, Dr Darryl Stellmach, with Médecins Sans Frontières provides an important link for research and the practicalities of response procedures in medical and nutritional crises.

The Ebola virus epidemic, which plagued West Africa between 2013 and 2016, thrust anthropology into the frontlines of healthcare. Anthropologists worked alongside other public health professionals to trace patient contacts, manage burial practices, guide the medical responders on the social dimensions of the outbreak, and the general population on the behaviours of the virus.

Dr Darryl Stellmach is a postdoctoral researcher in medical anthropology, food and nutrition security. His core research focuses on the anthropology of large-scale medical and nutritional crises, such as the West African outbreak and the civil war in South Sudan.

Darryl will be working with the London office of international aid agency, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) to help oversee the integration of on-ground anthropologists in field response teams.

This role at MSF is an ideal opportunity to bring the tools and theories of academic anthropology into a practical setting.
Medical anthropologist, Dr Darryl Stellmach.

“The impetus to include anthropologists in emergency public health response follows the Ebola outbreak, when acceptance of the clinical teams and local, community level response was essential to breaking the advance of the disease.

“Anthropologists were essential to these on-ground efforts and their involvement led to calls from institutions such as the World Health Organization and MSF to integrate anthropology more widely in emergency preparedness and response.

“This role at MSF is an ideal opportunity to bring the tools and theories of academic anthropology into a practical setting. I’ll be able to put my research findings into practice to assist the organisation in preparing for critical, emergency situations,” said Dr Stellmach.

Darryl joined the academic community of the University of Sydney as a postdoctoral associate in 2016. His interdisciplinary research contributes perspectives on the social and political aspects of epidemics, food security, environmental and nutritional crises, and his appointment incorporates work with the Charles Perkins Centre, Marie Bashir Institute and the School of Life and Environmental Sciences.

His doctoral thesis in anthropology awarded at Oxford followed MSF in their response to the armed conflict and subsequent nutritional emergency in South Sudan.

“My doctoral research came about because of my unusual background. I spent ten years with MSF as an emergency relief worker. My experience and knowledge of their methods enabled me to work and travel with the teams in a way that wouldn’t have been possible for other anthropologists.”

Darryl’s current research and previous experience place him in good stead to bridge these two worlds, and bring interdisciplinary perspectives into emergency public health.

“There are many actual and potential roles for anthropology in emergencies. The Ebola response showed us the need to establish global mechanisms that rapidly mobilise emergency health experts with relevant local medical, epidemiological and political knowledge.

“I’ve been presented with an opportunity to highlight the importance and value of anthropologists, and social scientists in general, in public health crises. We can have a practical and visible impact, making sense of social science issues in the medical response to epidemics, mass displacements and armed conflict,” Darryl said.

“MSF is a medical organisation, so medicine will always be at the heart of what they do, but they also acknowledge that medical interventions succeed or fail based on personal and social factors – so there is a place for experts in the social and the psychological, alongside the medical, biological and epidemiological.

“This is something that the University of Sydney has recognised too. Interdisciplinary hubs such as the Marie Bashir Institute and the Charles Perkins Centre put the University in a good position to respond to the emergent challenges of this century, and move academic and scientific work into the practical sphere. It’s research for good.”

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