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Anne Goddard

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Reactions to Uganda's Health Scare Should Ring True for Americans

Posted: 09/07/2012 6:03 pm

Fear over Ebola is understandable, given communication challenges

It's more than 7,000 miles between Uganda and our Atlantic shores, and so if the recent outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus there seems unthreatening and distant to Americans, I suppose that's understandable. Even the name of the virus, named after the river where the disease first surfaced in 1976, evokes far-away, uncertain images. Ebola - without context, it hardly sounds like a menacing threat but more of a stereotypic label perhaps for a disease confined to another continent, to remote tracts of Africa, to people used to dealing with such hardship.

No worries here.

And yet, as we read of how the virus has gripped the western part of Uganda, immobilizing people who watch those around them become the latest victim, we should have a real sense of what Ugandans are currently enduring. Our own history - recent history - includes medical scares that rise to the same level of uncertainty and fear that is sending waves of panic through a large swath of Uganda.

Americans witnessed a comparable scare in the early 1950s when a lack of information about polio sent parents into heightened hysteria. Despite calls for calm among the nation's medical community, families reacted - some would say over-reacted - by carrying out self-imposed quarantines, keeping children home from school, restricting trips out of the house to absolute necessity and limiting access to friends and neighbors. Propelling the panic was abject fear - less of the disease than of the unknown.

Fast forward a quarter century later to the mid '70s when a double dose of anxiety swept the country. The death of a soldier at Fort Dix from swine flu caused the government to fear that the country was on the precipice of an epidemic, and as a reaction, Congress authorized a vaccine for everyone in the country. At nearly the same time, the outbreak of so-called Legionnaire's disease, a mysterious and fatal illness tied to a convention in Philadelphia that summer, stoked even more panic, especially when scientists were unable to pinpoint its origins.

Then, of course, the national hysteria over AIDS punctuated the 1980s. Misinformation as to how the disease is spread - not from toilet seats or mosquito bites, as many incorrectly believed - kept anxiety levels high and led to discriminatory views toward those who were most susceptible to the disease. Caution bordering on the irrational dominated much of the public discourse.

And this summer, the nation is experiencing an outbreak of West Nile virus approaching record levels. The mosquito-borne disease is spreading so rapidly in parts of the country that massive spraying programs are underway. With more than 40 deaths already, the health scare is beginning to escalate.

What is clear in all of these cases is that the absence of certainty can propel fear and panic. So, when we learn that many Ugandans are afraid to go shopping in local markets, that they are staying away from churches and mosques, that they are restricting their movement and interactions with others, we should be able to see much of ourselves in such reactions. We have, after all, been there ourselves. Ugandans are not so dissimilar from us in that respect. Their paramount concern is protecting themselves and their families from a fatal disease that has neither a treatment nor a cure.

But the situation in Uganda is different from our own previous experience in one significant way. Here at home, we have the capacity to reach millions of our citizens in a comprehensive, almost instantaneous way. Television and the internet, cell phones and amber alerts can blanket the country with warnings and information. Public health leaders can provide details and assurances, dispel myths and misinformation and deliver advice on how to best protect ourselves.

Not so in Uganda. Without this electronic network of communication in place, Ugandans rely more on word of mouth for their information. And so when they hear that Ebola has returned, a disease that killed over half of the more than 400 people who contracted it during the last outbreak 12 years ago, they are on edge for more details and default to paralysis.

That is where we are trying to fill the void. ChildFund is taking a leadership role in helping keep people informed. Leveraging our strong existing relationship at the community level, relationships that have helped earn us a position of trust, we are briefing district leaders in affected areas, educating them with the facts so that they, in turn, can bring the most recent information back to their villages where most of them hold public meetings. These gatherings are critical for keeping villages up to date on the latest news, teaching them how to recognize and respond to possible symptoms and reassuring them that a broader response with respect to containment is underway.

From a public health standpoint, we are distributing protective gloves, disinfection agents and face masks to village health teams. We also are taking to the airwaves. ChildFund representatives are going on radio stations, airing public service announcements and hosting question-and-answer sessions about the virus designed to help assuage fears, dispel misperceptions and encourage people to take prudent protective measures.

Since the disease first emerged 36 years ago near the Ebola River, there have been insufficient advances in how to treat and cure victims of the virus. But over that time, public health officials and the medical community have learned a great deal about the necessity for limiting close contact with victims. Without a vaccine or serum, and until more research is conducted to identify the precise cause of the disease, the best defense against Ebola is education and communication.

Imagine, if you will, any one of the health scares in this country taking place without the government's capacity to let us know what is going on. While we should be able to relate to the fear that Ugandans are experiencing, what is difficult to imagine is confronting a potentially deadly disease with information about it so elusive.

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