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Patient Zero, Perfect Storms and Other Comforting Epidemic Metaphors


The English Guardian reports: “In December last year, near the village of Meliandou in southern Guinea, two-year-old Emile was bitten by one of the fruit bats that fly through west Africa’s skies, often gathering at dusk to roost in trees.” In fact, as the article goes on to make (partially) clear, this is just one hypothesis out of many.

The ‘first’ person infected in the current outbreak may or may not have come into direct contact with a bat, or some other animal; or the outbreak may have occurred in a health facility, rather than in ‘the bush’; the term ‘Patient Zero’ is suitably dramatic for articles about disasters set in exotic locations, but has distracted attention from how people continue to be infected with ebola.

It’s comforting to think that African two year olds are a lot less likely to be bitten by bats now that the scientists, medics and disaster workers have moved in; perhaps African parents will even give up or modify their unsafe bat-hunting habits and take people to hospital if they are thought to be sick, and cease to take vaguely defined risks of being infected at funerals.

Meanwhile, when a healthcare worker in Texas is infected with ebola, being one of the many people who nursed ebola victim Thomas Duncan, a ‘breach of protocol’ is immediately suspected. Another hypothesis, of course (although it leaves out the possibility that the protocol has failed to take into account some additional mode of transmission).

Compare this to an earlier blog post: when 86 people who have no identifiable risks for the virus are infected with hepatitis C in the US, expensive investigations are carried out into possible breaches of infection control processes in the health facilities that the victims attended.

Yet, when millions of Africans who have no identifiable risks for the virus are infected with HIV, an entire industry develops around the prejudiced view that Africans engage in huge amounts of unsafe sex. No investigations are carried out into conditions in health facilities, although various reports show that infection control processes are seriously lacking.

Of course, there was no ebola protocol in West Africa back in December of last year. But all the more reason, then, to investigate health facilities. What kind of infection control processes were in place then, and are now? Subsequent findings suggest that there are severe shortages in trained personnel, supplies and beds, etc, similar to those noted in other African countries.

Rational explanations in western countries, but metaphors and non-rational backstories in Africa. Spacesuits, because it is an exotic virus from a different planet, brave westerners, but only poor and uneducated Africans.

It just seems a bit suspicious that ebola (and HIV and other diseases) are spread through the ignorance and carelessness of victims in African countries, but through a ‘breach of protocol’ in the US. Health facilities are such dangerous places in African countries that it is surprising authorities insisted on rounding up those suspected of being infected with ebola and marching them off to a clinic in the first place.

But that approach may now be challenged if this article in the New York Times is at all correct. It says that officials have admitted defeat and that they are going to “help families tend to patients at home”. About time too. This could be a major turning point if it is taken to its logical conclusion (if logic if given a role, for a change).

As David Gisselquist has pointed out on this site, people are not being asked about possible infection through through healthcare procedures they may have received in the recent past. Gisselquist has been arguing that people should be warned about healthcare risks, treated with respect and fully supported if they decide to care for ebola patients at home.

Long before the current ebola outbreak occurred it was already common practice for healthcare professionals to say as little as possible about lack of safety in facilities, resulting in HIV, hepatitis, TB and other diseases being transmitted through various procedures, such as injections with reused syringes and needles, unsterilized equipment, reused gloves and other materials. This needs to change, as the ebola outbreak shows (and as the hepatitis and HIV epidemics have been demonstrating for several decades).

In the US there are possible insurance claims, professional negligence inquiries, outbreak investigations, protocols to be rewritten, with some of these phenomena possibly being mentioned in the mainstream media from time to time. Oh, and perhaps some much loved mongrels to be euthanized.

But in Africa the media will continue with its customary approach: treat the people as an exotic, primitive species, to be pitied for their funeral practices and ‘bush meat’ hunting, their reluctance to go to a hospital (implied to reflect a suspicion of modern or ‘western’ things or people), etc. There will be lots more ‘ebola orphans’, two year old Emiles, ministering angels in spacesuits and the like.

It’s as if this completely unforseeable ‘perfect storm’ (a metaphor also favored by the media when writing about HIV) took away Patient Zero, and the rest of the outbreak was down to a combination of other ineluctable processes. But, whereas a perfect storm is a rare combination of factors, unsafe healthcare has been around for decades.

The current ebola outbreak is a symptom of decades of unsafe healthcare; it is nothing like a ‘perfect storm’. Two year old Emile, ebola’s putative patient zero, is as far from being the index case as Gaëtan Dugas was for the HIV epidemic. Stopping ebola requires an admission that unsafe healthcare spreads disease and allows isolated outbreaks to become pandemics. Apologies if the truth is far too prosaic to sell newspapers.

One response to “Patient Zero, Perfect Storms and Other Comforting Epidemic Metaphors

  1. Pingback: Guardian Ebola Coverage: More Journalism, Less Journalese, Please | Don't Get Stuck With HIV

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