Fear of Infection / The Infectiousness of Fear

by Brian Mullin

Which factors contribute most to the spread of infection?  How about these?

Poverty.

Misinformation.

Fear.

Combine them, and you’ve really got an epidemic on your hands, as several recent news stories have proven yet again, especially the comments published yesterday from UKIP Leader Nigel Farage that HIV+ people should be banned from migrating to Britain:

Nigel-Farage

FARAGE: “Ukip want to control the quantity and quality of people who come.”

INTERVIEWER: “Quality? How do you define quality people?”

FARAGE: “It’s simple. That Latvian convicted murderer shouldn’t have been allowed here.”

INTERVIEWER: “So quality means people without a homicide conviction?”

FARAGE: “Yes. And people who do not have HIV, to be frank. That’s a good start. And people with a skill.”

Attempting to defend the remarks, Farage told Radio 4’s John Humphrys, ‘We should do what America does, what Australia does, we should do what virtually every country in the world does and say we want people to come who have got trades and skills, but we don’t want people who have got criminal records – and we can’t afford to have people with life-threatening diseases.’

When Humphrys points out that America doesn’t keep out people with HIV, Farage dodges the question. (Added factoid: Australia doesn’t either.)

These discriminatory proposals come at the same time that Western media has finally seen fit to put the African Ebola outbreak onto the front pages, and there is no doubt that his outrageous HIV remarks capitalise on wider fear of diseases from the ‘Dark Continent.’ According to the Daily Mail’s headline the CDC Chairman told the World Bank, ‘“Ebola is the next AIDS”. (The actual quote is significantly different: ‘We have to work now so this is not the world’s next AIDS.’)

Even a supposedly staid publication like Bloomberg Businessweek stokes the panic with the kind of scare-mongering cover that one associates with AIDS coverage in the ignorant 80’s.

businessweek-ebola-cover

Sensationalism and fear don’t just whip up the public into a frenzy, though, they prod governments into taking unhelpful decisions. Just this week, we have witnessed the UK government reverse its course and pledge to begin airport screenings for Ebola, against WHO recommendations and in spite of advice from leading public health officials who have called such procedures, ‘a complete waste of time’ and money, driven more by political motives.

As with AIDS, Ebola is a political crisis as much as a medical emergency. The disease has spread not because we don’t know how to prevent it, but because the outbreak went unreported for three months in countries without functioning health infrastructures. In Liberia, there are 0.1 doctors for every 1,000 people in the population; there are 0.2 doctors per 1,000 in Sierra Leone. Compare that ratio to 2.42 in the U.S. and 2.77 in the U.K.

Ironically, a study published just last week has traced the historical origins of HIV to the Belgian Congo, where a ‘perfect storm’ of factors including population growth, the sex trade, and the colonial economy allowed the virus to spread. And yet it did not come to global attention until 50 years later when cases emerged in the ‘developed’ world. In both cases it’s the same old story: economic deprivation, greed, and global apathy promote disease.

What, then, are the principles that should be guiding public health policy? How about these?

Science.

Justice.

Compassion.

Unlike other nations of the world, Britain has thankfully never prevented HIV+ people from entering, even at the height of the epidemic. And just two years ago, our National Health Service embraced the wisdom of ‘treatment as prevention,’ making HIV medication universally available for everyone residing in the UK, regardless of their citizenship.

It’s thankfully unlikely that Mr Farage’s ban will ever come into being here. What we should fear, though – and fight against – is the misinformation that this bigoted man has been able to spread, thanks to the outsized media platform he is granted.

HIV is not a ‘life-threatening disease’ – it’s not even a disease, but a virus which, if left untreated, can weaken the human immune system and lead to AIDS. With proper treatment, HIV+ people in the UK now have a life expectancy ‘no different from the general population’ and if their viral loads are kept to undetectable levels, then they are virtually unable to transmit the virus to their partners.

Yet how many people in the general population know this? Where are the cover stories in mainstream media extolling these important medical findings? Instead we have backward bigots like Farage spouting outdated information and fueling more fear – which leads directly to increased infection.

Despite normal life expectancy, HIV+ people surveyed in Britain experienced a much lower quality of life in all areas, but especially anxiety and depression. They suffer from a stigma that those with other chronic conditions like diabetes will never have to deal with – being isolated from families, discriminated at work, shamed in the media, and rejected by potential partners. Is it any wonder that this social perception prevents people from getting tested, going on treatment or disclosing their status?

We need to talk much more about HIV, until everyone knows the facts rather than the fears. If Mr Farage really wants to protect the health of Britain he should stop worrying about closing the borders and keep his mouth closed instead.

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2 Comments Add yours

  1. actupldn says:

    Thank you for that thoroughly researched and sensible article. We’ll share it on the ACT UP Facebook page.

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