Richson: Stigma, what AIDS and Ebola have in common


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There are certain cinematic images that stick with you, even if you watched a movie only once. For me, that image is of Tom Hanks in Philadelphia, playing an HIV/AIDS stricken lawyer who fought disease stigma literally until his last dying breath. I watched the movie for the first time this summer, and once news networks ramped up Ebola coverage this fall, I couldn’t get either disease out of my head.

The largest platform for AIDS awareness, World AIDS Day, occurs on Dec. 1 of each year, although it is a relatively young tradition. World AIDS Day was established in 1988, just seven years after doctors had begun to take note of the strange phenomena of a spike in pneumonia cases as well as in the extended demand for the drug that treated it, Pentamine, despite the fact that Pentamine was not meant for long-term use in pneumonia treatment.

Slowly, the CDC began to gather information and release reports about the disease, which was given its name in 1982: Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. But however legitimizing the name might seen, public distress soon began to set in because little was known about how the disease was actually transmitted. Since the ’80s, major strides have been made in research about HIV/AIDS, but unfortunately, humanity seems to stagnate when it comes to compassion.

A certain amount of stigma clouds any HIV/AIDS diagnosis even currently. As recently as 2011, 47 countries or territories still maintained a degree of restriction regarding HIV patients traveling or staying in their borders.

Perhaps in the midst of the international Ebola crisis, this public confusion and stigma sounds familiar. Particularly in the age of good old Doctor Internet, it is easier than ever for health-related panic to spread, and when that happens, fingers start pointing and stereotypes flourish.

Although HIV/AIDS and Ebola are fundamentally different, the public panic surrounding both diseases has the same tune. The few lingering cases of Ebola within the confines of the US seem to have been squelched, and sadly, the public’s concern will likely die down despite the disease continuing to rage in Africa.

Similarly, it is estimated that approximately 34 million people in total have HIV internationally, yet the AIDS panic has long died down with public education regarding its transmission. However, the eradication of panic does not mean the eradication of stigma. Perhaps, in time, we can channel public fear into a drive towards both funding and a cure for both HIV/AIDS and Ebola.

It’s easy for those of us on our couches watching the news to be dismissive of public health crises, or to react in the total polar opposite direction and in effect, stigmatize entire populations of people we think we ought to steer clear of. But there is one objective reality: fear aside, HIV/AIDS and Ebola are daily realities to people worldwide. We can either treat people as people, or people as their disease.

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