Stigma in the Time of Ebola

By Renán Orellana, Co-Editor-in-Chief

Recent reports on the Ebola outbreak in West Africa have described the situation as an “unprecedented epidemic”. In March, the ministry of health in Guinea confirmed 86 cases of Ebola infection, and ever since, this viral hemorrhagic fever has spread and continues to spread to neighboring West African countries. On April 7, 2014, the CDC posted an Outbreak Update from the Ministry of Health of Guinea stating that as of April 5 a “total of 151 probable and suspect cases, including 95 deaths” had been reported in the country. 

Ebola is a deadly disease with a fatality rate of up to 90% and leads to vomiting, diarrhea, internal and external bleeding, muscle pain, and even organ failure. Authorities suspect that fruit bats – which are considered a delicacy in rural Guinea – may be to blame considering that they have been identified as carriers of the disease as natural hosts of the Ebola virus. To control the spread of the disease, government precautions in Guinea include a ban on the sale and consumption of bats; a number of infection control measures in hospitals; and health promotion efforts urging people to practice good personal hygiene in order to prevent further transmission of Ebola disease in the country.

But as people begin to survive and recover from the disease, stigma emerges as a new problem that complicates the implementation of health interventions to treat and prevent the spread of Ebola.

Community-level stigma is a well-known public health threat to HIV prevention and treatment efforts worldwide. As more and more patients are discharged from health centers and return home, stigma has also become a problem that needs to be addressed in villages and communities where traditional beliefs and witchcraft may perpetuate the fear that often marginalizes people infected with Ebola. 

Health education has become an important strategy employed by such public health organizations as Médecins Sans Frontières to make sure that people understand how the disease spreads. These attempts focus primarily on quelling the growing panic that complicates relief efforts and the reintegration of patients into their traditional societies.

Recent violence against Médecins Sans Frontières highlights the importance of responding to this panic, particularly as relief groups face accusations by locals of bringing the deadly virus to certain regions of Guinea. Attacks on treatment centers will hinder international relief and public health efforts if sites are forced to suspend their activities.

Health workers are projected to be preoccupied with confronting this outbreak for the next two to four months given the nature of this epidemic.



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