Combat Ebola Fear With Knowledge; A Lesson From The AIDS Epidemic

Oct 16, 2014

Scan the headlines from around the country, and you might think the nation was under attack, that Ebola is stalking children in classrooms and on school buses, a stowaway on every flight, contaminating neighborhoods.

Members of Rhode Island's Liberian community raise awareness on steps of statehouse.
Credit Kristin Gourlay / RIPR

There’s no doubt of course that Ebola is a horrible, often deadly disease. Thousands of West Africans have been lost to it.

But fears about Ebola seem often unfounded, as they often did about AIDS.

Early AIDS fears
Consider the lead for this article by Judy Foreman in the Boston Globe, Sept. 1985:

"Fear of AIDS among the American public has become so intense it amounts to a secondary epidemic - infinitely more contagious than the disease itself - federal officials say."

Foreman continues about the public's discomfort with uncertainty and mistrust of doctors:

"Fueled in part by massive publicity given the mysterious infection that destroys the body's defenses against disease, the spreading fear of AIDS has all but overwhelmed efforts by health officials to offer reassurances - primarily by emphasizing that the disease is not easily spread.

Perhaps the greatest reason those efforts have not had more effect, noted Dr. James Mason, acting US assistant secretary of health, is that doctors are unable to reassure people "at the 100 percent level."

'In science, as in nature and in all aspects of life," he said in a telephone interview, "there are no absolutes. People . . . are looking for absolutes that can't be provided. People have trouble dealing with the concept of relative risk.'"

The issue of quarantining AIDS patients was hot in 1985, as well, and Foreman writes about the debate:

"Support is also growing for controversial proposals to quarantine AIDS victims - 42 percent of respondents to a recent New York Daily News/Eyewitness News poll favored the idea.

Harvard School of Public Health professor William Curran, who has been studying a "range" of legal options for dealing with AIDS victims who might insist on being sexually active, said health lawyers around the country might soon be asked to draw up measures to impose quarantines or other restrictions.

But could any such law be fair or workable?

"We can't quarantine people for life, as would be necessary," said Massachusetts Public Health Commissioner Bailus Walker.

A recent report from the Hastings Center, a medical ethics think tank, put it this way: 'One would hope that society has become sophisticated enough to realize that public health measures with a punitive impact, like quarantine, against individuals who (have been exposed to the AIDS virus) would be intensely damaging to the hard- won increased acceptance of diverse lifestyles. Furthermore, such measures would not be buttressed by scientific evidence.'"

Sound familiar?
If any of this is sounding all too familiar, that's because it is. I heard talk just yesterday at a meeting about a community's concern over recent arrivals from West Africa: should they be isolated for 21 days, until it's clear they're not infected? No, said a member of the health department. That's not supported by the scientific evidence. But the question came up again, in part, I think, because of the very natural and common human desire for complete assurance, total protection. But that's why we prepare, the official said, referring to plans hospitals have put in place, and department task forces, and public lecture series, because we can only be ready for unknown, not completely protected from it.

During the early years of the AIDS epidemic, lots of people joined the effort to spread knowledge and combat fear and prejudice. I remember going to a "teach in" at a friend's house in the mid-80s, to learn about how AIDS actually spreads (sexual contact, blood) and doesn't spread (hugging someone, for example, which people were afraid to do at the time).

No cure but knowledge
We don't have a cure for Ebola yet. But we do have a pretty strong antidote for fear: knowledge (I'd also add action, because doing something often makes us feel better). So here are a few options I've learned about for both. Please don't hesitate to contact me with any others you hear about.

  • Tonight, from 6 - 9 pm, at the University of Rhode Island Providence campus, PAFF Auditorium, a free public seminar: "Ebola Virus: Overview and the Rhode Island Connection." Department of Health officials present, hosted by URI researchers. More information: 401-277-5200.
  • October 18, 11 am EDT: the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention hosts a conference call for faith and community based organizations about the West Africa Ebola outbreak. You can submit questions ahead of time. More information here.
  • October 29, 6 pm at the Rhode Island statehouse, a candlelight vigil, "Lights For Africa," to remember those lost to Ebola. More information here. Sponsored by the youth organization Ebola Be Gone.
  • November 8, 12:30 - 4 pm, at the Rhode Island statehouse, 2nd floor, Yoruba Elders International Society hosts an afternoon of lectures on the theme "Understand the Ebola Outbreak in West Africa." One session features "voices from the West African diaspora communities," the other features Brown University medical anthropologist Adia Benton and Boston University infectious disease researcher John H. Connor.

Where to donate
If you want to take action, here's a list of non-governmental organizations responding to the Ebola crisis, from U.S. AID (Agency for International Development), that are accepting donations.