Fernando De Maio (right) and John Mazzeo (left) see the problem of global health inequity from different perspectives within social science. But when it comes to the big picture, De Maio and Mazzeo agree: Not enough people are trained to work successfully on global health in international settings. That’s the gap they’re addressing at DePaul.

De Maio, an associate professor and director of the undergraduate program in sociology, looks at a population’s health as a dynamic process: As societies change and risk factors evolve, new health patterns emerge. In his research, he uses radical statistics.

“When we use statistical methods not only to describe the world, but to change it, statistical analysis becomes a radical research methodology.  For example, we can measure health inequalities. Statistics are a way of documenting the social and political arrangements that harm populations. And in uncovering those, we start to challenge some of the fundamental divisions in our world,” he says.

“When talking about global health inequities, we need two ways of knowing: theory and data. The sociologist C. Wright Mills warned us against ‘the blindness of empirical data without theory and the emptiness of theory without data.’ If we document poor health literacy in a population, but have no theory about the cause, we’d have a relatively empty understanding of the problem. Theory frames the right questions and then helps us interpret the data. If data proves a theory wrong, we can come up with a better one.”

Mazzeo, an associate professor of anthropology and director of the Master of Public Health program, studies the myths and realities of global health, especially as they reflect underlying sociocultural structures. “The ‘what’ of treatment for many diseases is well known, but the ‘how’ varies by society,” he says.

“That’s why we can’t treat an outbreak of a disease in a developing nation—say, cholera in Haiti—the same way we would in the United States, even though the treatment is simple. Here, hospitals and clinics are the mechanism for disseminating information and care; in Haiti, the reach of institutions like these is very limited. If health care isn’t informed by local realities, programs hit the wall.  To effect a real change or have a real impact, a crisis response or a health care system needs to be built from the bottom up, in ways that respond to cultural and social realities.”

Looking for Solutions

Working together, De Maio and Mazzeo are launching two initiatives in 2015.

First, the global health certificate is a four-course program that will raise awareness of the issues at play: Graduate students will learn about the terrain of global health, while gaining practical skills in epidemiology. The certificate includes a course on program planning, which Mazzeo says speaks directly to DePaul’s roots: “Once we have knowledge, how do we apply it? How do we develop novel, community-based programs in global settings?”

“This course will have great appeal for students in public health, of course, but also for those in sociology and other disciplines who are interested in the impacts of globalization or international development,” adds De Maio.

Second, a collaboration with Rush University Medical Center will generate new knowledge about health inequalities in Chicago. Students will explore ways to study and act upon deeply entrenched patterns. Lessons learned will be shared through classes, conferences, skill-building workshops and scholarly publications. The initiative will be featured at the Eighth Annual Health Disparities and Social Justice Conference, which will take place at DePaul in February 2015.

Tomorrow’s Leaders
“We’re educating professionals who can think about public health—not just as abstract policies, but as actual programs—at the community level,” says Mazzeo.

“Some of our graduates will work internationally; some will work in Chicago. But even those staying here need to know about global health inequities because diseases are not constrained by national borders, as we’re seeing with the Ebola virus, and because Chicago has migrant and refugee populations. What is happening in the places they’ve come from? The answer affects how we identify disease, treat and prevent disease, and raise awareness.”

“That’s what we do so well in the liberal arts and social sciences—we widen perspectives,” adds De Maio. 

“For our students, poor populations begin to matter, even if we don’t live side-by-side, even if we don’t live in the same country. We are all connected. At times that connection brings out uncomfortable truths: We benefit from the sufferings of others. For example, U.S. pharmaceutical companies conduct clinical trials—say for HIV drugs or cancer treatments—on populations of poor people who will never be able to afford the medicine once it comes to market. Working in global health means bringing connections like those into the open and trying to think of ways to make the world more just.”

“Our students know that global health is a human rights issue,” says Mazzeo. “And our graduates know that today’s global economic and political systems exacerbate inequities. We’re training students to take the first steps toward finding solutions to that problem.”