Fighting The Stigma Of Ebola With Hugs

Oct 24, 2014

When Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, hugged Dallas nurse Nina Pham on Friday it was as much to combat the stigma surrounding the deadly virus as to celebrate her being free of Ebola.

Fauci said it was an honor to treat Pham and get to know "such an extraordinary individual." Pham said she felt "fortunate and blessed" and put her trust "in God and my medical team."

Pham later met with President Obama in the Oval Office. The president and the nurse also hugged as news photographers captured the moment.

A pool report said Obama hugged Pham after the president said something to the effect of, "Let's give a hug for the cameras."

White House press secretary Josh Earnest said the meeting was "an opportunity, first of all, to thank her for her service."

It was not the first time Obama had met with an Ebola survivor. In September, the president sat down with Dr. Kent Brantly, a U.S. medical missionary who contracted Ebola in July while working as a doctor in Liberia. Brantly was successfully treated at Emory University Hospital In Atlanta.

"We are incredibly grateful to him and his family for the service that he has rendered to people who are a lot less lucky than all of us," Obama said after meeting with Brantly.

Many people compare the stigma of Ebola with earlier views about HIV/AIDS — and the way public figures tried to change those perceptions.

Princess Diana was often seen holding children with HIV. President Reagan was photographed holding the hand of Elizabeth Glaser in 1988 during a private meeting at the White House. Glaser had contracted HIV in a blood transfusion and later died of complications from AIDS.

Close displays with people affected by Ebola contrast with the stigma it holds in West Africa, where thousands have died of the virus. As NPR's Nurith Aizenman reported in August from the Liberian capital city of Monrovia, even those who have not been infected can be shunned.

She told the story of Amanda Ellis, 79, who lost five members of her family to the virus:

Ellis herself never got sick. She's long past the 21 days it takes to know if someone exposed to an Ebola patient has contracted the disease themselves. But now she's facing fear and rejection. Her neighbors want nothing to do with her.

It started at the local market. Ellis earns her living there, selling mangoes from some trees at the edge of her yard. But when she shows up, the other sellers shoo her away. "Go! You have Ebola!" they shout.

"Everybody shun me," Ellis says.

They won't buy her mangoes. And they won't let her buy their food, either. "If they do take the money," she says, "they will stand a far distance from you and stretch their hand."

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