Dallas Morning News
Originally Posted: Feb. 6, 2015
Dallas’ Ebola outbreak may have ended last fall, but the scientific exploration of what happened here has only begun, especially among medical anthropologists.
In a two-hour discussion Friday at Southern Methodist University, three such experts sorted through how the crisis evolved, how people responded and the language they used to describe what happened.
It was an “an epidemic of misunderstanding,” the three speakers agreed, and the problems started in West Africa, where the Ebola epidemic began in 2013.
Adia Benton, an assistant professor of anthropology at Brown University, cited key words that made the disease more frightening than it should have been. For example, the World Health Organization decided to call it “Ebola hemorrhagic disease,” which focused on its explosive symptoms rather than its cause.
It allowed people to fixate on “projectile vomiting, diarrhea and blood coming out of eyeballs,” she said. “The first time WHO referred to it as ‘Ebola virus disease,’ it affected how we think about it, and it wasn’t as scary.”
Doug Henry, associate professor of anthropology at the University of North Texas, recalled the “emotional epidemic” that struck Dallas when Liberian national Thomas Eric Duncan was diagnosed with Ebola in September. Tensions abated only after the national election in November, he said.
“I was troubled by how the media and politicians exploited the situation,” Henry said, describing endless news coverage and constant political pressure to ban flights from West Africa. He also cited attempts to detain health care volunteers as they returned from fighting the disease.
“The forced quarantine of health care workers makes the epidemic worse and more likely to spread to us,” he said.
Carolyn Smith-Morris, associate professor and director of SMU’s health and society program, said she jumped into the fray when Ebola showed up in Dallas. She sent her students door to door to talk to Dallas residents about how they felt as the outbreak unfolded.
“It’s very rare that we get to see what the beginning of an epidemic looks like,” she said. “There were lessons to be learned about stigma, prejudice and fear.”
Dallas’ outbreak never reached epidemic proportions, “although the media coverage tried to convince us it did,” Smith-Morris said. Epidemics require a higher rate of disease followed by a massive effort to stop it, she said.
Although more than 100 people were quarantined in Dallas, only three Ebola cases were diagnosed: in Duncan and two of his hospital caretakers.
Still, the local outbreak remained stuck in a “crisis phase,” Smith-Morris said, because public confusion and anxiety continued for weeks. “There were pieces of information we did not have,” she said of the government’s educational response.
The three experts pondered whether Duncan might have been a victim of racism, considering that his Ebola diagnosis and treatment were delayed for several days.
Benton, who is black, said many things could have influenced Duncan’s treatment, including his immigrant status, lack of health insurance and heavy foreign accent. Doctors also didn’t expect Ebola to show up in their emergency room.
Duncan died, while the two Ebola-infected nurses survived.
Benton said it’s hard for many African-Americans to reconcile how Duncan was treated. “Everyone knows a delayed response is more likely to kill someone,” she said.
Smith-Morris said she couldn’t conclude that prejudice alone was responsible.
“Racism may have a place,” she said, “but I don’t think it explains Duncan’s death.”