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What is Communicable? Unaccounted Injuries and “Catching” Diabetes in an Illegible Epidemic

By Amy Moran-Thomas

Cite As:
Moran-Thomas, Amy. 2019. “What is Communicable? Unaccounted Injuries and ‘Catching’ Diabetes in an Illegible Epidemic.” Cultural Anthropology 34, no. 4: 471–502.


Long-accepted models of causality cast diseases into the binary of either “contagious” or “non-communicable,” typically with institutional resources focused primarily on interrupting infectious disease transmission. But in southern Belize, as in much of the world today, epidemic diabetes has become a leading cause of death and a notorious contributor to organ failure and amputated limbs. This ethnographic essay follows caregivers’ and families’ work to survive in-between public health categories, and asks what responses a bifurcated model of infectious versus non-communicable disease structures or incapacitates in practice. It proposes an alternative focus on diabetes as a “para-communicable” condition—materially transmitted as bodies and ecologies intimately shape each other over time, with unequal and compounding effects for historically situated groups of people. The article closes by querying how communicability relates to community, and why it matters to reframe narratives about contributing causalities in relation to struggles for treatment access.


chronic disease; diabetes; communicability; knowledge production; debilitation