Ebola and Fear

Today's Ebola crisis and AIDS

Hey Folks,

Welcome to day 3 of our funding push, I’ve got the second of our teaser videos for you and I’m glad to say that the past two days have brought us $1,400 closer to our goal! If you haven't given yet there's no time like the present ;)

That said, when we were planning out this campaign we decided that we don’t just want to beg you for money. As long as we’re bending your ears and eyes to our project I’d like to talk about some of the issues we’ve been thinking about and mulling over. Over the course of the next two weeks along with the videos we post I’ll be adding some thoughts about the film and the issues we’re tackling.

Now, in the last month, more than ever before this film has felt like a burning message that we need to get out to the world. The emergence of Ebola on the American media landscape has reminded many of the fear and panic that surrounded AIDS in the early days of the epidemic. Rumor and speculation, facts and science are ignored as some politicians and pundits exploit existing prejudices to score political points. In the HIV epidemic it was Gays and IV drug users who came down with the disease, giving bigots and zealots an easy excuse to discount the infected as less than human so somehow deserving of the illness. Today's Ebola epidemic, arising out of West Africa has been met by calls from some to close the border and plays easily to fears of immigrants and foreigners. Notably the case of East African children in New Jersey who were kept out of school because they had recently emigrated from Rwanda, a country 2,600 miles from the nearest Ebola outbreak. The choice by school officials to bend to irrational fears of parents defies not just prevailing medical advice and knowledge but simple logic. Now those children will have to return to their schools, 3 weeks behind, new immigrants and stigmatized as the Ebola kids.

Today's video is a clip of Dr. Kathy Gaffney who was medical commissioner of Broome County N.Y. in the 1980s, and in it she's speaking about the irrational fears and very real prejudice that HIV patients faced in the Binghamton in the early days. Even from people who should have known better like doctors and nurses there was an ignorance of or refusal to believe what was known from very early on about the science of transmission. From some of the earliest studies and reports on AIDS and HIV, in '81-'82, the epidemiology indicated that it was a sexually transmitted decease and people with close, non-sexual or needle sharing contact with patients could not get it. And as more research was done that fact was confirmed. But ignorance persisted and when cases of AIDS and HIV appeared in Binghamton the mid to late 80s, people were scared. And of course the social stigma associated with the disease only compounded people's refusal to think rationally about the issues.

Working on this film I have learned what anybody working in public health or social work could tell you off hand, that the only salve for the wounds of fear and ignorance is the balm of knowledge and education. I received a message on our Facebook page recently from a woman who worked with my mom, she writes:

“…. I worked at general hospital in Binghamton from 06-09 and had the liberty of working with your mother. I have been the medical field as a nurse’s assistant for 14yrs so far. She has impacted my work ethics profoundly to this day.

She was the first Dr I saw examine a patient without wearing gloves. The patient had scabs over majority of their body. They were on suicide watch I was doing one on one care. I had been wearing gloves for 8 hours straight in the room as every other aide was following suit. As she left the room I felt compelled to ask her why she didn't wear gloves. I didn't want to offend her, as many Drs don't like to be questioned. I asked her and told her this was clearly a question out of ignorance and I would like to know. She told me the logistics of how to catch the virus and the chances of her receiving the virus threw contact touch were none. Mode of transmission, time for contact and such. I had felt so insensitive. I had sat with gloves on and there was no need to!

When I went back in the room I took my gloves off and sat down to continue playing cards with the patient. The patient then asked me, 'aren't you scared I will end up killing you with the monkey?' I told her no. That Dr Chaffee had explained things to me and apologized for my ignorance. Days later the patient thanked me for making her feel 'human'. The patient has since passed away, but will FOREVER stay in my heart, as your mothers kind words of wisdom will also…”

Disease is scary, and for thousands of years our instinct to avoid the infected has probably saved our species. But we live in an era of science, when it's possible to understand the risks we face. It is so simple to open people's eyes to what the real dangers are or are not, all it takes is some calm and reasonable explanations, setting a good example. When we do that it lets us see past our selfish irrationalities and allows us to see the people who actually suffering and help them.

The only trick is that every time it comes around we have to get back up and shout it from the rooftops again. To be fair, we have come along way since the 80s and we learned many lessons from the AIDS epidemic. There have been notable voices of reason like Shepard Smith speaking out against the hysteria and despite those who say otherwise President Obama’s response has been worlds better than the Reagan administrations' complete and willful disregard for the crisis happening under its watch. That said, it seems unlikely that this will be the last epidemic we see in our lifetimes and we need to keep reminding people that we have a system that works. Good public health policy works. Whether the message comes from the president, a doctor, a social worker or your next door neighbor we need to keep getting it out there. That is one of the many reasons I want to make this film please help me do that.

Posted on Oct 11
Written by Tim Chaffee