- Kate Harvey, Public Health Specialty Registrar, University College London
- Conall Watson, Specialty Registrar in Public Health & MRC PhD Researcher, LSHTM
- Nigel Field, NIHR Academic Clinical Lecturer in Public Health & Infectious Disease Epidemiology, UCL
An unknown pathogen was ravaging Scotland’s capital in April 2013, turning unlucky infected souls into bloodthirsty, ambling beasts. The city was under military lock-down and scientists were working around the clock to identify the pathogen and develop means of control. Each night, 250 uninfected citizens reached the safe zone at a former veterinary college, taking democratic responsibility for the public health and military response.
So read the script for Deadinburgh; an immersive theatre event that brought scientists and actors together and gave the public a window into scientific and public health decision-making during an emergency response. This high degree of citizen power and insight into the often unseen world of outbreak management is hard to achieve in real emergency situations. The paradox of success in averting outbreaks is that the world never hears about the ones that didn’t happen and effectively communicated ‘sound bite’ messages do not illustrate the complexity of evidence and decision-making. Behind public health guidelines and advice lies scientific evidence and ethical awareness of the ways that decisions affect peoples’ lives and health.
If knowledge and understanding can affect risk perception and health behaviour, there may be something to be gained from raising awareness of how and why public health decisions are made. The process gave us, as public health professionals, valuable insights into the motivations and priorities of the populations we serve and the challenges that arise when decision makers are presented with conflicting scientific opinion. It was surprisingly difficult to get the audience to agree with us about the best course of action.
The critical reception and audience feedback from Deadinburgh showed that people are interested in public health and, given the chance to see it up close, seemed to engage with us, whether discussing the zombies’ predilection for brains or the transmission dynamics of a plague of undead.
We tried to simulate situations that were emotional, full of uncertainty and characterised by conflicting or incomplete information – and we got some great questions from audience members appreciative of the challenges of evidence-based decision-making. The show was amongst the most entertaining few days any of us have spent working in public health; the audience and critics seemed to love it too.
Whether immersive theatre and simulated situations can get people to engage with public health on a larger scale and help build trust and empathy with the way that science is used to inform public sector decision-making remains to be seen. What we do know is that people like science; people like zombies; and the two combined can help us to reflect on our own practice as public health professionals.
Deadinburgh was an Enlightnment Café by LAStheatre in association with the Gate Worldwide and made possible by funding from Arts and Business Scotland. Additional supporters included BBSRC, the Royal Society of Edinburgh and Entourage Live. Scientific collaborators included Centre for Eating Disorders Scotland, Heriot Watt University, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, Manchester Metropolitan University, Roslin Institute, University of Edinburgh, and University College London and covered: cell biology and virology; computer modelling and epidemiology; eating disorders; public health; neuroscience; stem cells and 3D printing.