What do HIV and Ebola Have in Common?

378462_Ebola-LiberiaBy Leah Cavanagh

In Sierra Leone we see people being quarantined, discouraged from going out in public, not allowed to properly bury the deceased, and all because of Ebola virus disease. This is not a blog about whether these practices are necessary or excessive, because I am not an expert on how this virus is transmitted, nor do I fully understand all the prevention methods in place to prevent transmission.

What I will say, however, is that the scene of quarantine – whether mandated or self-imposed – isolation, and judgment is frankly pretty familiar and makes me really uncomfortable.

When HIV was first observed in the United States (then AIDS, among other stigmatizing labels) there was widespread fear regarding how this lethal whatever-it-was was transmitted, and this led to the ostracism of those thought to be carrying it. There were (and still are) travel bans, blanket rules on blood donation, and extreme blame placed on those thought to be positive.

The results of this fear were varying according to individual. We saw anger, as was the case with the AIDS activists. We saw heartbreak, as was the case with those newly diagnosed and their loved ones. We saw stigma, in various forms across different groups but generally always directed at the HIV positive individuals. And all of this led some people to withdraw and try to either hide their status or attempt to fight the virus alone.

In both these viruses the stigma is rampant. Coming from the HIV world we all know the many forms stigma can take and how these beliefs impact the quality of life of people living with HIV, and the reality is that the stigma being perpetuated around Ebola is not that different.

When people are cured of Ebola (termed convalescent by epidemiologists) and return to their community, they are often shunned for fear that they may still be contagious. Furthermore, their family is often shunned as well, thinking that they may have been exposed and could also be contagious. Keep in mind, please, that Ebola is not contagious unless an individual is symptomatic. Even if the person does not return to the community, that is they passed away, often times the family is shunned for the same reason. I would say ‘imagine being shunned by your community in the very instant that you need them most’, but I know that many in our community do not need to imagine it, having experienced the heartache that that brings first hand.

This is only a sampling of the stigmatization that can occur in such a situation. Entire regions of the world are being stigmatized, as well as the staff and volunteers that are involved with managing the outbreak.

All of this is to say, think twice before you speak about Ebola and make sure to learn the facts. We all know the harm that stigma and discrimination have wracked on our community and to impose that on another virus would be detrimental to quelling that outbreak as well. We don’t make AIDS jokes so let’s not make Ebola jokes either – you never know who has been impacted by this scourge.

Here’s a link to the World Health Organization Ebola fact sheet. Read it. Share it. Let’s not let another virus run rampant because of misinformation and half-truths. http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs103/en/

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