Documentary on vaccine hesitancy to launch new public health initiative

The School of Public Health’s Epidemic Center will screen the new documentary “Shot in the Arm,” directed by Scott Hamilton Kennedy and executive produced by Neil deGrasse Tyson, on Monday, October 30, at 6 p.m. The film explores the history of vaccine hesitancy and its relevance in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The film, which began as a project about measles and then pivoted to COVID-19, includes interviews with former National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases director Anthony Fauci, as well as interviews with “anti-vaccination activists.”

The screening is the first in the Center for Epidemics’ year-long initiative exploring “storytelling as a public health intervention,” according to the event description. The program, called “Our Legendary Health Film and Media Series,” will include film screenings, campus conversations and workshops.

“What’s interesting is that many of the successes in public health are invisible,” says epidemiologist and documentary filmmaker Jennifer Galvin ’95. “It’s not just science communication and making infographics. It’s really about ‘How do we educate people about the invisible work in public health?'”

“Documentary at its best makes the invisible visible,” she added.

Bentley Holt, communications and outreach specialist at the Center for Epidemics, said the screening at the Granoff Center for the Creative Arts will be free and open to the public. A panel discussion with Galvin and reporter Maggie Fox will follow.

The broader initiative is co-orchestrated by Galvin and Jennifer Nuzzo, director of the Epidemiology Center and professor of epidemiology. The two met in graduate school at Harvard University and now reconnect at Brown University. “She and I have been talking about big ideas in public health for more than 20 years,” Galvin told the Herald.

The center’s projects are part of Brown’s Arts Ignite program, a new campus-wide initiative that includes a diverse array of creations on campus and across Rhode Island.

“What was catalytic for us was the Brown Arts IGNITE funding opportunity,” Nuzzo said. “This is an important opportunity to put some ideas on paper.”

“I think we haven’t fully embraced or learned how to harness the power of narrative and storytelling as one of our interventions,” she added.

Galvin said she was excited to partner with SPH on this project. She believes that the interdisciplinary culture of the university is the perfect environment to share her own work in filmmaking and public health, and she is delighted to highlight that this medium can convey messages to the world that traditional public health interventions cannot.

Nuzzo echoed this sentiment: “It’s not enough to just talk to people about facts. … If we hope to change health behaviors, in addition to providing facts, we really have to reach people’s hearts and minds,” she explain.

That’s what A Shot in the Arm aims to achieve. The film “sheds light on some of these issues,” Galvin said. This is the “combination of thinking and feeling”.

Over the next year, the Epidemic Center series will explore the potential of using other art forms as methods of public health intervention. According to Nuzzo, each event is followed by a discussion on current topics, which are not always pandemic-related — in fact, most are not.

The two hope to select future films that cover a variety of issues in public health: climate change, environmental injustice, the opioid crisis, gun violence and more.

Galvin said they also hope to expand the initiative in the coming years by partnering with other parts of the university and encouraging students of all interests and majors to get involved.

In the near future, Galvin and Nuzzo hope the first event will reach far beyond the Brown community. “It’s also an opportunity to open the door and bring the larger community outside of our walls in to be part of these conversations,” Nuzzo said.

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