Every day our inboxes, screens and radio waves are flooded with messages and information. For the most part, this information is helpful but sometimes it can be highly destructive. Through the delivery process, information is packaged, formulated and shipped out by various media channels. The media plays the important role of mass communicator, reaching large amounts of people rapidly thanks to the advent of smartphones and social media. What if messages promote fear instead of facts? According to history, we know it leads to only to one thing: mass hysteria.
Ebola: is HIV history repeating itself?
There have been many parallels drawn this week between the Ebola outbreak and the early HIV outbreak of the 1980’s. One cannot avoid the Ebola headlines or feature stories asking if countries are ‘Ebola ready’. The mounting hysterical coverage has been coined “fear-bola” or “ebolanoia” by many commentators, including the scientific community and the twitterverse. It cannot be underestimated how quickly and efficiently fear turns into hysteria. If there is anything that we have learnt from the early days of HIV, is how fear and hysteria transforms into stigma within a blink of an eye. The damaging and lasting effects of stigma are still very much evident in the HIV epidemic today regardless of advances in scientific research, understanding, community outreach and education.
This is not saying that Ebola and HIV are similar; in fact the only similarity is that they are both viruses and look to share the misfortune of being mismanaged.
Let’s clarify the hysteria around Ebola transmission. According to the World Health Organisation Ebola is spread
“through human-to human contact (through broken skin or mucous membranes) with the blood, secretions, organs or other bodily fluids of infected people, and with surfaces and materials (eg. Bedding, clothing) contaminated with these fluids.
One common misconception surrounding Ebola is that it can be transmitted unknowingly. In fact, the virus only appears in the body fluids of a person after they have symptoms, so a carrier can’t unknowingly spread it before they feel sick.
Misconceptions about transmission sound awfully familiar. Why? Because, even 30 years on we are still battling HIV misconceptions. According to HIV Foundation Queensland, 21% of people still think you can get HIV from kissing and 13% of people think you can get HIV from sharing a drink!
The question remains: have we not learnt anything about public health hysteria seen in the early HIV epidemic? Marc Siegel authored a brilliant article asking why we lack the perspective to assess the threat of Ebola, given the mismanagement of the AIDS epidemic in the 80’s. He also commented back to his own experience as a medical resident during that time where clinicians had little idea of how HIV was transmitted and were irrationally afraid of getting HIV just by touching people or coming close to patients.
There is absolutely no question that international and domestic responses to HIV/AIDS were lessons in what not to do. Central to the failure in adequately responding to the HIV epidemic was the mounting hysteria and fear- driven by misconceptions, incorrect knowledge and moral judgements. So why are we seeing such similarities in the early response to HIV and present day Ebola?
Recently, it was announced that Australia has stopped processing visa applications for people travelling to Australia from Ebola-affected countries. We know that travel bans do not work. All we need to do is to look to the HIV travel bans that were put in place in response to the epidemic. Travel bans discourage individuals to seek testing, services, care and support. They aided prejudicial assumptions and counter public health interests as well as framing it as a “foreign problem”. In the case of Ebola bans, it discourages and blocks able healthcare workers to assist on the ground where the epidemic is hardest hit.
Looking to the United States, the Obama administration made headlines when Obama himself hugged and embraced the Texan nurse who has contracted Ebola and was now declared to be Ebola-free. Many commentators have highlighted the stark difference from the Reagan administration’s response to HIV in the 1980’s and 1990’s. However, the U.S’s current strict quarantine period for healthcare workers returning from West Africa is based on dubious science, at best.
We need to be critical of our response to Ebola and use it as a chance to introspectively reflect on how far society has come in relation to HIV; but also paradoxically how far we still have yet to go.
Let’s hope that HIV is a guiding light for Ebola and future health epidemics on what not to do while we continue to push for increased access to HIV treatment and prevention and importantly increased access and coverage of human rights for PLHIV.