On Thursday afternoon, Sten Vermund, the dean of the Yale School of Public Health, discussed public health topics ranging from gun violence to HIV and AIDs at a Berkeley college tea.

With almost as many shootings as days in 2018, and one as recent as last night, Vermund asserted that gun violence is “out of control at the moment” and needs to be addressed. During the talk, he said that he is working toward starting a program focused on gun violence at Yale and has reached out to alumni for support. Vermund also suggested the introduction of such a program as a track of study in the School of Public Health that could potentially collaborate with Yale Law School and the Yale Divinity School.

Vermund highlighted that gun violence is often a result of mental health issues, particularly social isolation. So, he said, the Divinity School “may have something to offer” in addressing issues such as poverty and self-esteem.

Additionally, Vermund said, the study of gun violence could involve Yale Law School in discussions of potential legal policy changes. For example, these discussions could include introducing universal background checks and restrictions on gun types.

With gun violence being a multifaceted issue, Vermund said he believes there are many opportunities for study within the field to improve evidence, communicate information and implement prevention strategies.

Students who attended the talk spoke positively about Vermund’s views on the study of gun violence. Tomeka Frieson ’21, who organized the event, noted the benefit of expanding the field to different areas and focusing on different facets of gun violence.

“This could be an interdisciplinary and productive field,” Frieson said.

Cecilia Crews ’19 agreed that gun violence should be studied in an interdisciplinary light and that introducing the topic in the context of public health could set an “interesting precedent” for the study of gun violence.

Vermund’s talk also focused on implementation strategies for HIV medicine.

Head of Berkeley College David Evans said that after the talk he “will certainly remember medicine is only as effective as it is implemented.”

Scientists have not yet found a cure to HIV, Vermund said, describing HIV as the “ultimate Trojan horse” — infecting healthy cells and using them as a place to multiply. Scientists are yet to find a way to “flush it out of deep tissue,” he explained.

However, antiretroviral therapy, which includes the implementation of a combination of medicines, can control the growth of the virus. As a drug that can save the lives of people with HIV, Vermund called it a “miracle drug.”

But in order for this medicine to be used effectively, it must be implemented successfully. Indeed, Karen Kelley, a guest speaker at the tea who is a technical advisor for integration for the United States Agency for International Development in South Africa, argued that “implementation science is equally [as] important” as the medical science.

“It is important to work on taking knowledge and applying it more successfully,” Kelley said.

Vermund, who founded Friends in Global Health, an organization to spearhead HIV prevention, care and treatment in rural Mozambique and Nigeria, discussed the obstacles he overcame while implementing prevention and treatment strategies.

For example, only about 70 percent of pregnant women came for HIV testing, a low number considering that the testing provides information to maximize the health of their babies, he said.

A later study found that this low number was often the result of women being afraid of what their husbands would think, which prompted the creation of a male engagement program. Subsequently, since 2011, the program has grown to become the most successful HIV-targeting program in Mozambique.

Students who attended the talk agreed with Vermund’s belief in the importance of understanding local communities and interacting with residents when implementing public health strategies.

“It is essential to take cultural differences into account when working to create a healthier society,” said attendee Anna Baker ’22, who has worked in northern Ghana on women’s health.

Sophie Oestergaard | sophie.oestergaard@yale.edu