October 7, 2008

Psychology of an Epidemic

Five people have died in South Africa recently due to an unknown viral disease. One woman came back from Zambia and died. The paramedic that flew with her died. Her nurse died. Two hospital cleaners have died. And her doctor is ill, exhibiting her symptoms.

What everyone is dying of is unclear, but the media is quite clear – don’t panic.

Don’t panic!? Um… that’s exactly what my mind wants to do! Do I still drink the water? Should I steer clear of certain areas? If I get sick, should I even go into a hospital? Is my sinus headache (that I have daily) now a sign of something else? I think my finger is turning blue!!! (oh wait, that’s ink…)

The truth is that although the actual nature of the disease is unknown, the likelihood of me personally coming anywhere near it is quite low. Hopefully the doctors and scientists will figure out the details soon so the public can take precautions, but freaking out actually results in nothing productive.

Just going through this exercise in my head, however, has given me a whole new perspective on the beginnings of the AIDS epidemic. In “And The Band Played On,” Randy Shilts goes into great detail through personal narratives of how early AIDS patients were ostracized, how nurses would no longer treat them, how people wouldn’t touch affected persons, etc etc. When I read those lines, I was mortified – how could someone be so cruel! I work with people living with HIV and then work to create programs to end the awful stigma attached to their communities. I think these thoughts and do these things because I am well informed. I know exactly what causes HIV and what doesn’t, so there is no reason for ill-placed fear.

But suddenly I have a whole new empathy for lack of information, not to mention misinformation. When you don’t know, you don’t know what to think. Your mind plays games with you. The news seems to take new meaning. Even the office water cooler becomes its own cesspool – "Did you know that so and so’s sister’s grandmother’s cousin was once in the same room as the woman who died? "

And so the cultural and psychological virus begins, forgetting any facts around the physical one. But how do you stop it? How do we learn to think rationally and not allow the mob mentality to take us over? How do we defeat the depths of fear and anxiety around the unknown? And how do we learn (the eternal lesson) to simply accept what is, while still taking precautions?

I don’t pretend to know the answers to these questions. But I do know that the biggest reason people don’t get tested for HIV is because they don’t know they should, or they don’t want to know the result - “It won’t happen to me.” Or equally damning, “ If it does happen to me, I will suffer a social death, and I’d rather physically die.” I spend my days trying to figure out how to combat these mentalities, but where I thought there had been progress, I am again completely lost - reminded that I don't have the answers, but also learning that there are so many more questions (including why the blueness of my finger won’t go away…)