Liberians Living In U.S. Fear Ebola Stigma

Liberians Living In U.S. Fear Ebola Stigma
Princess Duo, left, and Mamie Mangoe, right, both natively of Liberia who now live in Dallas, bow their head in prayer during a service at Wilshire Baptist Church that was dedicated to Thomas Eric Duncan, Wednesday, Oct. 8, 2014, in Dallas. Nearly 150 persons attended the service for Duncan who died Wednesday of complication from Ebola. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)
Princess Duo, left, and Mamie Mangoe, right, both natively of Liberia who now live in Dallas, bow their head in prayer during a service at Wilshire Baptist Church that was dedicated to Thomas Eric Duncan, Wednesday, Oct. 8, 2014, in Dallas. Nearly 150 persons attended the service for Duncan who died Wednesday of complication from Ebola. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

WASHINGTON -- News about the latest Ebola outbreak in West Africa, which has hit Liberia harder than any other country, has caused some awkward moments for Liberians living in the United States.

Karen Mygil, a surgeon in Bowie, Maryland, was recently making idle chitchat with her nurses while examining a patient. The discussion soon turned to the Ebola crisis, the hot topic in the news that everyone was following.

"The patient gave some feedback about what he had heard about the news, and I said, 'Well, you know, I'm from Liberia,'" recounted Mygil. "He jerked himself back from my hands, and he said, 'You're from Liberia?'"

Mygil said she explained that it's been almost two years since she was last in the country, which seemed to reassure the patient a bit.

"This is a patient well-known to me," added Mygil, who is an oral and maxillofacial surgeon. "I've treated him a number of times. But this was a physical reaction he had in drawing away from me as I was operating on him. ... I truly think people are overreacting."

Marlene Cooper Vasilic, who grew up in Liberia but also hasn't been back to the country in nearly two years, noticed people similarly pulling away from her while at the gym earlier this month.

"I wore a Liberia shirt in solidarity to the gym ... and got a wide berth from quite a few people," said Vasilic, who now lives in Washington, D.C. and works at the Center for American Progress.

Most Americans say they don't actually fear Ebola, according to a Pew Research Center poll. At the same time, people do want the U.S. government to respond more aggressively to the outbreak, which has infected more than 8,000 individuals in West Africa and killed more than 4,000. Two-thirds of Americans told an ABC News/Washington Post poll they favored a ban on travel to and from West Africa, something the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says would hinder efforts to stop the disease at its source.

And 32 percent of Americans did tell Pew that they were very or somewhat worried that they or someone in their family will be exposed to Ebola, despite the government's insistence that a widespread outbreak in the U.S. is extremely unlikely.

Many Liberians in the U.S. are closely following the Ebola crisis that is ravaging their home country, waiting for updates from friends and family and lending financial and emotional support to those dealing with the epidemic. But some are also becoming frustrated that there now seems to be a stigma attached not only to Liberia, but by extension, to Liberians living abroad.

The Los Angeles Times recently reported that Liberians in the Dallas area, where two people have been infected with Ebola, have faced the taunt: "Go back to Liberia."

"If I am Liberian, that doesn't mean that I have Ebola," Carolyn Woahloe, a registered nurse, told the paper. "This is not a Liberian problem. This is a world problem."

Liberian-Americans aren't the only ones affected by the stigma. According to CNBC, at least two Nigerian students currently living in Texas received letters from a college in the state rejecting them because of Ebola.

"Unfortunately, Navarro College is not accepting international students from countries with confirmed Ebola cases," read one of the letters.

Not everyone has faced negativity, of course. Zealous Kolubah, a 37-year-old Liberian who has lived in Fort Myers, Florida, since emigrating last spring, said he has not encountered any Ebola-related paranoia from people in his community. Instead, he said, Americans have been curious and sympathetic.

"The only inquiry I would get is from people's desire to know how it came about in my country," Kolubah said. "People just want to know more about it."

Ebola is as new to Kolubah as it is to the people asking him questions. He is from the city of Zorzor in Liberia's Lofa County, which borders Guinea and Sierra Leone and which officials have called the epicenter of the outbreak. Though the world has known about Ebola since the 1970s, the current outbreak started in March -- about a year after Kolubah left.

Still, he feels a strong connection to Liberia. "Since my birth I have never left my country," Kolubah said. "I feel a part of the people. Some of the people who have died I knew personally."

Beyond what's happening in the U.S., Mygil said she regretted that her home country was being branded with a negative reputation.

"I think everybody is reacting irrationally. It's a shame," Mygil said. "Liberia has one stigma after another; it's so much more than Ebola and war."

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Before You Go

Ebola is highly infectious and even being in the same room as someone with the disease can put you at risk
Not as far as we know. Ebola isn't contagious until symptoms begin, and it spreads through direct contact with the bodily fluids of patients. It is not, from what we know of the science so far, an airborne virus. So contact with the patient's sweat, blood, vomit, feces or semen could cause infection, and the body remains infectious after death. Much of the spread in west Africa has been attributed to the initial distrust of medical staff, leaving many to be treated at home by loved ones, poorly equipped medics catching the disease from patients, and the traditional burial rites involving manually washing of the dead body. From what we know already, you can't catch it from the air, you can't catch it from food, you can't catch it from water.
You need to be worried if someone is sneezing or coughing hard
Apart from the fact that sneezing and coughing aren't generally thought to be symptoms of Ebola, the disease is not airborne, so unless someone coughed their phlegm directly into your mouth, you wouldn't catch the disease. Though medical staff will take every precaution to avoid coming into contact with the body of an infected person at all costs, with stringent hygiene there should be a way to contain the virus if it reaches the UK.
Cancelling all flights from west Africa would stop the spread of Ebola
This actually has pretty serious implications. British Airways suspended its four-times-weekly flights to Liberia and Sierra Leone until the end of March, the only direct flight to the region from the UK. In practice, anyone can just change planes somewhere else and get to Britain from Europe, north Africa, or the Middle East. And aid agencies say that flight cancellations are hampering efforts to get the disease under control, they rely on commercial flights to get to the infected regions. Liberia's information minister, Lewis Brown, told the Telegraph this week that BA was putting more people in danger. "We need as many airlines coming in to this region as possible, because the cost of bringing in supplies and aid workers is becoming prohibitive," he told the Telegraph. "There just aren't enough seats on the planes. I can understand BA's initial reaction back in August, but they must remember this is a global fight now, not just a west African one, and we can't just be shut out." Christopher Stokes, director of MSF in Brussels, agreed: “Airlines have shut down many flights and the unintended consequence has been to slow and hamper the relief effort, paradoxically increasing the risk of this epidemic spreading across countries in west Africa first, then potentially elsewhere. We have to stop Ebola at source and this means we have to be able to go there.”
Temperature screening at airports is an effective way to stop those who have the disease from travelling
The screening process is pretty porous, especially when individuals want to subvert it. Wake up on the morning of your flight, feel a bit hot, and you definitely don't want to be sent to an isolation booth for days and have to miss your flight. Take an ibuprofen and you can lower your temperature enough to get past the scanners. And if you suspect you have Ebola, you might be desperate to leave, seeing how much better the treatment success has been in western nations. And experts have warned that you cannot expect people to be honest about who they have had contact with. Thomas Eric Duncan, the Ebola victim who died in Texas, told officials he had not been in contact with anyone with the disease, but had in fact visited someone in the late stages of the virus, though he said he believed it was malaria. The extra screening that the US implemented since his death probably wouldn't have singled out Duncan when he arrived from hard-hit Liberia last month, because he had no symptoms while travelling.
Border staff should stop people coming in to the country who are at risk
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They're not doctors, and it's a monumental task to train 23,500 people who work for the UK Border Agency how to correctly diagnose a complex disease, and spot it in the millions of people who come through British transport hubs. Public Health England has provided UK Border Force with advice on the assessment of an unwell patient on entry to UK, but they can't be expected to check everyone.
Screening at British airports should be implemented to stop unwell people coming in from affected areas
As mentioned before, the UK, especially London, is a major transport hub. Unlike the US, most of those coming from west Africa will have crossed through Europe, so infected people could be coming from practically anywhere, not just flights directly from those countries. This would require the UK to screen every returning traveller, as people could return to the UK from an affected country through any port of entry. This would be huge numbers of low risk people, at vast, vast expense.
Ebola doesn't have a cure
John Moore via Getty Images
There are several cures currently being tested for Ebola. They include the ZMapp vaccine which was administered to British sufferer William Pooley and two other Americans who caught the disease in west Africa and they all recovered. Supplies of the drug have now run dry, and it has not been through clinical trials to prove its effectiveness. Mapp Biopharmaceutical, the company that makes ZMapp, says the drug's supplies are exhausted and that it takes months to make even a small batch. But an Ebola cure is very much on the horizon, and would have come sooner had it been seen as any kind of priority for drug companies before it started reaching the western world.
Ebola is a death sentence
It is true that certain strains of Ebola have had a death rate of 90%. However, with this particular epidemic the stats are more positive, a death rate of around 60%. Those who have decent, strong immune systems, are able to access intravenous fluids and scrupulous health care are far more likely to survive, which is why the survival rate of westerners who contract the disease is far better. Experts have suggested that, rather than waste money on pointless airport screenings, funds could be used to improve infrastructure in the affected nations to help halt the spread of the disease at source.
Ebola turns you into a zombie
Renee Keith via Getty Images
Just, no.

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