We’ve seen it before. Discrimination based on fear and misconceptions about disease. Too much of what we have seen in the response to Ebola is reminiscent of the early days of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
As a medical doctor double-board certified in internal medicine and preventive medicine and public health, I’ve seen how stigmatization can devastate patients and the public health response to HIV/AIDS and other diseases in the United States and abroad. Over the past decade, I’ve worked in several African nations including the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, South Africa, and Uganda.
Unfortunately, people of African descent are now being stigmatized because of the fear and hysteria surrounding Ebola, even if they never traveled to West Africa. But a Liberian-American woman is now challenging xenophobic attitudes, after her niece was sent home after she sneezed in school. The child has never been to Liberia.
Around the country, people of eastern, central, and western African descent are facing similar forms of discrimination in schools, restaurants, hospitals, and airports.
Launching an Internet campaign with the slogan “I am a Liberian, not a virus,” aunt and mother Shoana Solomon is challenging the growing stigmatization of people of African descent.
Unfortunately, the stigmatization associated with Ebola also extends to health care workers who are returning from countries ravaged by the disease. Nurse and epidemiologist Kaci Hickox was the first health care worker to be quarantined under a New Jersey and New York policy, shortly after another health care worker who recently returned from the region tested positive for Ebola in New York City.
Politicians reversed their decision to hold Ms. Hickox after scientists including Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, pointed out that there was no medical basis to quarantine Ms. Hickox.
Ebola is not a death sentence. Though it is a public health threat that needs to be taken seriously, people can survive the disease. As cofounder of Partners in Health, Dr. Paul Farmer, said, “Ebola has not yet come into contact with modern medicine in West Africa. But when protocols for the provision of high quality ‘supportive care’ are followed, the case fatality rate for Ebola may be lower than 20 percent.”
We need to continue to mobilize resources to resource-strapped areas affected by Ebola. This is the only way we will contain the disease.
Immediate public health action is critical. Thousands of children are being orphaned in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, some left homeless and alone because of the hysteria surrounding the disease.
A dog in Spain was even stigmatized and killed, despite testing negative for the virus. But, too often, animals bear our burden. It is entirely possible that our treatment of animals is what landed us in this situation in the first place. The Ebola virus is typically transmitted to humans by killing and eating animals like bats, pigs, monkeys, and chimpanzees.
In fact, both of the two American outbreaks of Ebola are traceable to the maltreatment of animals. In 1989, a mutated form of Ebola was discovered in Reston, Virginia, after monkeys were imported in crowded, inhumane conditions from the Philippines to the United States for use in laboratory experiments. The outbreak was the basis for Richard Preston’s The Hot Zone.
The discrimination and stigmatization we are witnessing is very different than the actions of the health care providers at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital who cared for Thomas Eric Duncan, the Liberian man who died of Ebola in Dallas, Texas. In an interview with 60 Minutes, Duncan’s nurses described how they sat with Mr. Duncan, comforted him, held his hand through protective gear, and extended the compassion due any living being – even as he died.
We should reward these acts of kindness, not penalize them.