Yesterday the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation launched an exhibit called The Art of Saving a Life. In collaboration with more than 30 artists, including photographer Annie Leibovitz, and writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the exhibition addresses perceptions about vaccinations through various art forms. Visual artist Vik Muniz in Behind the Scenes explained, “scientists are trying to describe phenomena, [artists] are trying to describe how we perceive phenomena.”
Public health workers are tasked with directing this perception. Understanding how the public perceives health challenges is crucial to designing a successful action plan. Consequently, ensuring positive outcomes typically requires fostering a positive and cooperative perception of the problem.
The exhibit is intended to reach individuals on a visceral level and (with any luck) elevate public understanding of the population-wide significance of vaccines. As Dr. Orin Levine, director of the vaccine-delivery program at the Gates Foundation, explained to the Wall Street Journal:
“[Vaccination is] often the kind of work that people don’t know about—they don’t talk about, they don’t understand well. From my standpoint, I thought it was a great opportunity to try and engage art and the art community to help us spark that conversation.”
“[T]he recent experience with Ebola reminds us that diseases anywhere can be a threat to everybody everywhere…vaccines have a really important impact on improving the quality of life for everybody around the world. And we should keep that in mind.”
These types of conversations are critical in making public health a more prominent global issue. 2014’s health-related headlines illustrate the tremendous influence of public perception on how health issues are, or are not addressed. Unwarranted fears of catching Ebola swept across the globe based on misunderstanding and mass hysteria. Patients continued to demand antibiotics from their doctors to treat viruses, threatening a post-antibiotic era. In the US, confusion surrounding access, delivery and cost challenged the promise of the Affordable Care Act.
This exhibit provides an excellent reminder that influencing the perception of issues in public health is a necessary step in achieving better outcomes. Enjoy the show.
The views reflected in this expert column are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent those of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law or Georgetown University. This blog is solely informational in nature, and not intended as a substitute for competent legal advice from a licensed and retained attorney in your state or country.