Ebola clinic

Race and Disease: Should We Change the Name of Ebola?

The Ebola virus has a fatality rate of up to 90% and has killed thousands in West Africa in the past few months. Despite these figures, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control doesn’t expect a widespread outbreak to hit the United States.

Why are Americans are so afraid of the virus? The flu virus kills 36,000 Americans a year. But the flu isn’t likely to frighten us. Experts say Americans’ fear of Ebola can be traced back to the perceived African-ism of the disease.

This bumper sticker, alluding to similarities in the words "Obama" and "Ebola," is trending online.

This bumper sticker, alluding to similarities in the words “Obama” and “Ebola,” is trending online.

The Africa Factor

Suzanne Kemmer, a professor of linguistics at Rice University, says people hear the African origins of the word “Ebola” right away. It isn’t just the death rate that evokes emotion. The word itself impacts American listeners.

“It sounds like a foreign word. It sounds scary,” she contends.

Ebola was named after a river in the Democratic Republic of Congo. It follows a long tradition of naming a disease after the place where it was discovered. For example, there was the “Mexican” Flu of 2009, which was later renamed “Swine” Flu and finally “H1N1.”

Early researchers first suggested the name “Gay-related immune deficiency (GRID)” for what is now known as AIDS. Interestingly, the newness of words can cause people to interpret them differently; some new words can even evoke “word aversion.” Acronyms are less evocative.

Though Linguistics Professor Kemmer hasn’t done any testing with the word “Ebola,” she points out that it has most of the markers of a prototypical, generalized African sound structure. It follows the consonant-vowel-consonant-vowel pattern of many African words.

“It also has some sound similarities with ‘ebonics’ and ‘ebony’ and that immediately in American culture gives rise to associations with Africa,” Kemmer notes. “Italian has a similar sound structure. But to an American listener, the ‘eb’ of ‘ebony,’ as well as the ‘b’ and ‘la’ probably come across as African.”

In the U.S., the linguistic association with Africa reinforces common and ingrained racial prejudices. Keith Wailoo, a professor of both history and public policy at Princeton, has spent his career trying to untangle the issues of race, politics and disease.

“Any time the discussion focuses in the West on an African pathology or a pathology that has its locus on the African continent, implicit and often explicit in the conversation are issues of race and difference, of exoticism, of underdevelopment,” Wailoo notes. “All of those things are packaged together.”

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The Contagion Issue

Compared to many diseases, Ebola is difficult to pass from person to person. Surprisingly, the way Ebola is passed may make us more fearful.

“Diseases spread by interpersonal contact are thought of with a certain element of anxiety, hysteria and concern,” Wailoo notes.

A look at any media coverage of the disease reflects that anxiety. This week President Obama tried to address the notion of stigma and contagion by hugging the nurse, Nina Pham, who was recently cleared of Ebola.

An Element of Self-Interest

So what can Americans do? One popular response right now is to send humanitarian dollars and U.S. troops to the countries suffering most. But Wailoo says even our passion about helping other countries may be a form of self-interest.

There’s always this element of holding at bay those things that are seen as foreign and exotic.

“There’s always an element of self-interest in terms of how Americans think about health threats from abroad,” he observes. “Whether those health threats come from China, Avian Bird Flu or SARS or Ebola or West Nile Virus. There’s always this element of holding at bay those things that are seen as foreign and exotic.”

The Backlash

For the few Americans afflicted with Ebola, the backlash has been fierce. Communities are so fearful of the disease that some even opposed providing medical care to the sick.

Harris Ali is a professor of sociology and studies disease and stigma. During the SARS outbreak, he reported that many Canadians of Asian-descent were discriminated against.

“There’s a case of a bus driver not picking up a group of mostly Asian passengers at a bus stop, and all sorts of instances like that,” he reports.

“Us” & “Them” – The Angle of “Other”

Even if the name of the disease is changed, it’s not clear that Americans would be less fearful. Infectious disease itself now carries connotations of race.

“If you go back into history, the first public health agency that dealt with infectious diseases in the so-called developing world was the School of Tropical Medicine,” Ali says. “The British colonialists would go to India and Africa and be confronted with these diseases.”

“So even from the beginning, there’s an association of disease with tropicalness, or tropicality—with being in the south. There’s always the association of disease with a whole bunch of other negative aspects of life and livelihood in other places.”

From a sociological perspective, Ali comments that when people apply race-based generalizations they are probably trying to make sense of something hard to understand.

There’s so much in our society that leans towards that kind of simple thinking. You know, ‘us’ and ‘them’.

“I want to say it’s a laziness of human beings,” he says. “But I think it’s human beings trying to make a complex situation more easily understood by using more simple terms.”

Professor Wailoo shares that sentiment. “There’s so much in our society that leans towards that kind of simple thinking,” he notes. “You know, ‘us’ and ‘them’.”

Issues of what define “race” are actually so complex that Americans tend to oversimplify them.

A good example,” he says, “is the fact that we have a President whose mother is white and whose father was African. But that’s not how he is discussed in our society. He is discussed as a black man… That’s the easiest and the simplest way for almost everyone to have a conversation about questions of race in our society.

Policy Follows Politics

As the notion of a travel ban from Africa gains in popularity, Wailoo suggests that policy will always follow politics.

“I think that what you see in the political realm is essentially mirrored and echoed in the public health realm,” he remarks. “We could hope that people who work in medicine and public health are more sophisticated at thinking about these issues of race, but they’re products of the same society that everyone else is and often reflect prevailing social biases.”


[Photo at top of story by Staton Winter.]

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