A recent article published on the NPR website today highlighted the fact that both President Obama and Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, made a point of hugging recently recovered Ebola patient Nina Pham, whose highly-publicized bout of Ebola has fueled the rapidly accelerating media circus surrounding recent cases of Ebola in the U.S. Pham, who held a national press conference to announce her recovery, has sparked frantic, often wild speculation, even panic among the North American public about the potential for an Ebola epidemic arising the United States. The fact that Obama and Fauci both made a deliberate point to hug Pham speaks to the critical role that such actions will play in dispelling the stigma toward Ebola patients that has worked its way into the national dialogue about Ebola virus-control measures.
The NPR article draws an interesting connection between Obama's actions toward Ebola survivors like Pham or Dr. Kent Bradley, the actions of past public figures like Princess Diana, who held HIV-positive children in Brazil in the '80s.
While the work that these public gestures does to defuse some of the stigma around touching and interacting with victims of high-profile diseases, it is certainly not enough to dispel the public fear of an Ebola epidemic in the U.S.-- much more wide reaching and explicit education efforts will also be needed. And while such steps are important in the States, they only serve to highlight the lack of such action being taken in places where Ebola epidemics actually exist and where measures such as combating disease stigma, in addition to effective care and adequate public health facilities and funding, continue to be woefully absent.
By Kasiemobi Udo-okoye