How Ebola Rumor and Folklore Go Viral

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The latest Ebola outbreak in West Africa has killed more than 700 people and continues to concern doctors around the world. U.S. officials yesterday issued warnings to travelers about visiting Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, noting that the outbreak is getting worse.

While doctors and epidemiologists fight to contain the outbreak and treat patients, they are battling something almost as difficult to fight as the Ebola virus itself: rumor, folklore and myths about the disease.

Watch "Ebola: Are We Next?" on Thursday, Sep. 18, starting at 9/8c on both Discovery Channel and Discovery Fit & Health.

In some cases doctors have been physically kept away from treating those most in need. According to an article in the New York Times:

“Workers and officials, blamed by panicked populations for spreading the virus, have been threatened with knives, stones and machetes, their vehicles sometimes surrounded by hostile mobs. Log barriers across narrow dirt roads block medical teams from reaching villages where the virus is suspected. Sick and dead villagers, cut off from help, are infecting others.”

Foreign — and especially Western — doctors are often particularly distrusted as potentially harboring dark motives under the guise of medical help. In some cases doctors have been accused of intentionally infecting victims with Ebola for sinister purposes, such as testing experimental drugs on unsuspecting victims.

These rumors have many roots, including xenophobia and a general distrust of doctors. For many, the beliefs make perfect sense. Patients around the world avoid going to doctors out of fear of what they might find out, preferring not to know if something is wrong. Others avoid hospitals because, they say, that’s where many people get sicker than before they went in. To be fair, there’s some truth to that — many otherwise healthy people have died after being infected with MRSA and other deadly bacteria while in hospitals.

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The rumors are not just preventing doctors from treating patients and spreading the disease — they are also offering false claims of cures. In Nigeria, for example, public officials have grown concerned about rumors that shamen and witch doctors have cured Ebola victims: “Commissioner for Information and Strategy Aderemi Ibirogba specifically advised the citizenry to be wary of the activities of alleged fraudsters who were reportedly making spurious claims about their ability to provide cure for the deadly virus,” according to a statement. Other rumors claim that Ebola can be spread through casual contact (it can’t) or that home remedies or even magic can cure it.

Rumor of Disease

The stories and myths circulating about Ebola are not new, in fact they have appeared for many decades in reference to other diseases. Jon Lee, author of “An Epidemic of Rumors: How Stories Shape Our Perception of Disease” has studied the folklore (including rumors, legends and conspiracy theories) behind various diseases among both the affected groups and the news media.

He notes:

“The nature of the disease itself is almost of secondary consideration when it comes to narrative: regardless of which outbreak is making headlines — whether it’s AIDS or SARS or H1N1 — the basic stories are the same. Narratives are recirculated from one outbreak to the next, modified not in their themes but in the specific details necessary to link the narratives to the current situation.”

These rumors and myths are not started maliciously. They’re not part of a widespread attempt to spread the disease or harm outsiders. Instead they emerge from people trying to make sense of the death that’s going on around them, and a misunderstanding of science. Standard Western medical procedures designed to stop the spread of the virus — something as simple as strangers sealing a deceased victim’s body in plastic and taking it away to be examined or buried in isolation – conflict with traditional customs and practices.

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As damaging as these rumors and stories are, Lee isn’t optimistic that they’ll be going away any time soon: “Contemporary legends and conspiracy theories are notoriously difficult to eradicate post-creation,” he notes.

Legends and medical myths have long played a role in the spread of deadly diseases in Africa. For example in many places it is believed that having sex with a virgin can cure AIDS. This horrific myth has led to the double tragedy of young girls not only being raped but also in some cases being infected with HIV.

Medical myths and urban legends can have very real consequences. There is no magic bullet that will stop the spread of Ebola or any other disease, but spreading truth and debunking rumors can save lives.

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