In profile: Karen File, PhD candidate
Through her PhD at the UNSW’s School of Public Health and Community Medicine, Karen is examining the social and cultural aspects of health advice for small children in Vanuatu.
Worldwide, diarrhea is responsible for 11% of all deaths of children under the age of five. In Vanuatu, this issue is deeper, with almost 14% of deaths of children under five attributed to diarrhea. Researchers agree that the best solution to diarrhea is simply hand-washing with soap, however, research evidence from across the globe shows hand-washing rates are poor and the practice is difficult to instill in most communities.
While participating in a nine day water hygiene and sanitation training in a remote Vanuatu community, Karen File heard the lead trainer remark that if people just washed their hands, there would be no need to invest so much in building systems to help combat diarrheal diseases. This prompted Karen to begin thinking about alternative approaches to water management, and specifically how to invoke behavioural change within villages to combat these issues.
Through her PhD at the UNSW’sSchool of Public Health and Community Medicine, Karen is examining the social and cultural aspects of health advice for small children in Vanuatu. Through her research, Karen has found that many common hand-washing campaigns driven by Governments and NGOs have little to no effect, due to their focus on logic and rationality. Karen has found that within villages, behaviour is inherently emotionally driven and there is a need to utilise family networks and social connectivity to influence behaviour, ultimately improving hygiene practices.
“I chose to examine health advice through the lens of medical anthropology and social network analysis to determine how health messages really reach individuals,” said Karen. “Influential biomedical practitioners and traditional custom healers are the best channels to deliver health and hand-washing messages, as they have the power to convince more people of its importance.”
I think UNSW chose me... I found experts in water, health, and infection control who provided invaluable links to experts further afield
Karen File, PhD Candidate
More broadly, Karen’s research has revealed the power of networks, giving insight into the way information and influence is diffused and how social networks affect health. She hopes that her research and approach will be considered worldwide by those searching for solutions to complex health and behaviour issues.
Karen credits UNSW for its diverse array of experts who contributed to her research in different ways.
“I think UNSW chose me,” said Karen. “UNSW offered me the expertise in supervision required to undertake primary health research in my field of interest, and I also found experts in water, health, and infection control who provided invaluable links to experts further afield.”
Karen hopes to continue her research in social network analysis and medical anthropology, which have important health, social and environmental implications.