I was quite young when I learnt about HIV/AIDS. From the popular TV show “I need to know”, several WHO and #UNICEF sponsored awareness and a host of adverts on the electronic and print media illustrating the virus, its causes and its mode of spread, I had understood its nature, severity and control measures. With lots of genuine information that was and is still made available to the public on HIV/AIDS, one could hardly feign ignorance about its spread and fatality.
However, this awareness was not confined to the bad sides of the disease, they also addressed its management and preventions. More so, they emphasised that HIV/AIDS was bad, but there was a worse killer: stigmatisation.
The phrase “stigmatization kills faster than AIDS” is one we can hardly forget. Of course, the fear of stigmatisation still killed a lot of people faster than the AIDS virus itself.
Today, many years after the advent of AIDS the world is experiencing a recurrence of another viral outbreak- the Ebola virus. Now peculiar to other viral infections the Ebola virus is easily transmittable and very deadly.
Also unlike HIV/AIDS it has a very short incubation period of about three weeks and kills just as fast as it infects. Worse still the Ebola virus has no known cure and the world is still experimenting on several treatment methods.
The Ebola virus, dreaded as it may seem has been surrounded by too many myths. Stigmatisation and misinformation, factors that seem very mild have surprisingly overthrown Ebola in terms of fatality in recent times. Misinformation took its first toll on Nigeria. Many Nigerians would recall how they heralded a new dawn with text messages and updates on social media that kola nut could now cure Ebola.
The kola nut sellers had a swell time as it was bumper sales for them. Kola nuts that sold for just about N20 began to sell for the price of N50 and above. Nigerians failed to verify the sources of the information and more people did not consider the fact that excessive consumption of kola nuts was also a form of drug addiction. In this computer age and in Nigeria a country with the highest users of internet in Africa, I was disappointed at the vulnerability of our people.
Luckily for us Nigerians no fatality was recorded as a result of our initial show of ignorance.
But misinformation got its second chance when another round of misleading information reached the social media. This time, it was warm salt water that would prevent Ebola. Some of the updates ridiculously stated that people should have their bath with warm salt water and even use salt as body lotion and of course drink as much salt water as possible. Not a few fell for the bait. More surprising was the fact that even some educated health workers, people we would ordinarily meet for genuine information, were also among the peddlers of such false information. Sadly some Nigerians paid for their ignorance this time, and they paid the ultimate price. About five people reportedly died due to excessive consumption of salt water during that period.
Misinformation proved it’s “worth” taking almost the same number of lives that Ebola took in Nigeria.
Stigmatisation came next and is fast finding its feet. The sad thing about stigmatisation is that it kills slowly, painfully and yet indirectly. Most people live with it for so long before they decide they’ve had enough and most of the victims of stigmatization end up taking the painful decision of committing suicide. And so it was that recently a Liberian woman was found dead hanging on a tree early in the morning in Magodo, a suburb of Lagos. Reports revealed that she had been stigmatised in the area where she lived because she was Liberian, her fellow countryman had brought Ebola into our country and the outbreak had not yet been successfully contained in her country.
Nobody could risk contracting Ebola, and as a result her immediate society moved back to the ages of pre-civilisation and treated her like an outcast. With no family or friend to run to for succour, she committed suicide.
(The late nurse, Justina Ejelonus fiancés story is not less bad, though he’s lucky to be alive and free from Ebola. The virus took away his fiancée and stigmatisation took away his job, friends and almost his dignity in the society).
A lot of families have been ejected from their homes and more people discriminated against because of their connection with some Ebola patients or even a survivor. With stigmatisation, it is painful to die but it is even more painful to live.
With misinformation and stigmatization, Ebola has found strong competition and until we break free from their shackles, we might lose more lives and more importantly our sense of humanity. Luckily, Nigeria has been declared free from Ebola, but whether we like it or not, there may still be viral outbreaks in future and our immediate reactions to it determines says a lot about our understanding of empathy. The government has a role to play and it is in fact commendable that the Lagos state government invited all the Ebola survivors to the government house, a step I believe would go a long way in addressing stigmatisation.
However, we have a greater role. The social media is one of the fastest and most efficient means of disseminating information. Hence we should post information from legitimate sources and verify messages sent to us before taking them hook, line and sinker. We must understand too that viral outbreaks respect no one, even the best doctors and nurses have died from viral infections. It could be anybody. And so, we should not in the name of precaution end up being cruel to people because of their medical condition.