Dr. Nahid Bhadelia’s return to the United States after taking care of Ebola patients in Sierra Leone was an unpleasant one.
At TEDxNatick, Bhadelia spoke about how she was quickly identified at the airport, taken into a back room, interrogated, and physically examined; once she returned home, she was told she had been kicked out of her apartment. Her colleagues faced even worse realities including being banned from entering the states where they lived, loss of their jobs, and harassment.
“What took us aback was here we were, trying to help the communities, the very same communities we had now become pariahs in,” she said. “It was as if I had spent weeks battling this virus and all of the sudden I was the biohazard and because I was a biohazard I had become an untrustworthy human being.”
Bhadelia hadn’t been exposed to the Ebola virus, didn’t have the infection, wasn’t symptomatic, and said at the time of her return in 2014 the chances of anyone contracting the Ebola virus in the United States was listed at one in 13.3 million.
The fearful public response to an emerging epidemic like Ebola is hardly without precedence (the stigma against HIV for example) and she mentioned discussions she had with those who had been treated for Ebola.
“They felt they had stopped being a human being and were treated as a virus long before they entered Ebola treatment units,” she said. “They became that thing that cannot be touched, that thing that must be put away, that thing that is coming to get us.”
Bhadelia is the Director of Infection Control and Medical Response at National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratory (NEIDL) at Boston University, and feels there are ways we can try to alleviate the scare tactics associated with emerging epidemics. She doesn’t place the blame on procedures put into place to try to control these epidemics but rather the social judgment associated with the people for whom the policies have been created. Stigma not only prevented supplies (both physical and human resources) from arriving in West Africa, but it also prevents those who have been afflicted from coming forward.
Although emerging pathogens are by nature difficult to fully comprehend, Bhadelia said education about risk may help decrease stigmatization. She feels the media’s focus on one disease also helps build fear regardless of the low risk of exposure. But most of all, she feels we need to stop turning the diseases into sentient beings while simultaneously dehumanizing those who were unlucky to become infected. She recalled what she saw in the Ebola treatment unit everyday while in West Africa.
“We didn’t see the virus,” she said. “We saw real complete human beings, those with their own life trajectories; with their own family and friends; with their own hopes and dreams about the future; who just had the bad luck to encounter this disease. So I think one of the best ways to combat stigma is to actually remember our own humanity.”
Watch Bhadelia’s whole talk to learn more: