Science Revealed tackles inequities in health


Two Pitt researchers who are showing how our physical and psychological well-being can compromise our immune systems, make us more susceptible to viruses — and make vaccines less effective — are teaming for the next Science Revealed presentation.

Science Revealed — an online series of free public conversations from the Dietrich School of Arts & Sciences — continues with faculty members Anna Marsland from the Department of Psychology and Abimbola Fapohunda from the Department of Africana Studies offering “Perspectives on Health: (In)Equity Across Communities” from noon to 1 p.m. June 2. Register here.

Marsland’s research over the past 25 years, including collaborations with Carnegie Mellon University researcher Sheldon Cohen, looks at how psychological, social and behavioral factors influence the immune system — how stress affects susceptibility to viruses and what interventions might help high-stress individuals.

With Cohen, she has gauged the behavior of individuals (their socioeconomics, social relationships, eating, exercise and sleep habits, for instance) then measured how they responded to exposure to colds, flus and even earlier coronaviruses.

“Individuals differ in their ability to mount that response and then shut it off” when healing is completed, she notes. People hospitalized with COVID-19 sometimes experience a “storm” of the body’s healing efforts, as their most dangerous response to the disease.

The results of these studies, she says, “are very relevant to the enormous variety of symptoms people get when exposed to COVID-19. One finding I’m going to talk about (at the June 2 presentation) suggests that lifestyle and psychological factors form a piece of the puzzle.” Having more positive social relations, for instance, “are somewhat protective” for individuals, her studies have found. The quality of an individual’s sleep is also a factor in their immune response.

Fapohunda is studying health disparities among African immigrants in Allegheny County and residents of Lagos, Nigeria. Her work has shown that there is a connection between global and local health disparities, and that there are “different barriers and challenges that these people go through and health practitioners face.”

In Lagos, there is an unusually high rate of breast cancer among women younger than 50, for instance, and 80 percent of new cases are already at stage three or four. This has prompted Fapohunda’s team to train health care practitioners in earlier diagnostic methods.

Similarly, she says, in Allegheny County, African immigrants and other Black immigrants “are not truly visible” to the health care system. “They don’t like to talk about diseases,” and various cultural beliefs may keep them from seeking care, as compared to African-Americans. They are subject to social media misinformation too.

“When you come from a different space,” she says, “access is very different for you, so that causes barriers for them … to be able to address their unique problems.

“If we want to reduce health disparities in the United States,” she concludes, “we need to look at the smaller groups.”

Marty Levine is a staff writer for the University Times. Reach him at or 412-758-4859.


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