Gloved hands holding a syringe and vaccine dose.
Image Source: National Cancer Institute on Unsplash

How Stigmatizing Diseases Harms Public Health and Communities

On July 23, the World Health Organization announced that the current monkeypox outbreak is a global public health emergency (WHO). The move comes a month after a few cases were reported in at least 47 countries, including the U.S. Now, more than 16,000 cases across 75 countries and territories have been reported, including five deaths. 

As new cases of monkeypox continue to develop, commentary and imagery used by some western media have reinforced “homophobic and racist stereotypes” of LGBTQ+ and African people (UNAIDS). The reporting of the virus has depicted and directed the blame toward these groups, stigmatizing them and posing a threat to public health. Scapegoating marginalized communities is far from new. Like coverage of previous epidemics and the current pandemic, biased reporting and mischaracterizations of these diseases and the presumed source create negative narratives that often result in racist and violent attacks.

TAKE ACTION

• Read up on the history and stigma of the HIV/AIDS epidemic and how biased misinformation incite discrimination toward certain marginalized groups.

• Use the Stigma Language Guide to avoid using stigmatizing language when talking about diseases.

News media and editorial teams:
• Review and update editorial practices and policies that perpetuate biased or stereotypical ideals of marginalized people and non-white countries.

• Avoid visuals that assign a face or race to a disease or viral outbreak.

Although the current monkeypox outbreak is happening in countries where it’s not endemic, like the United Kingdom and Portugal (NBC News), imagery of the disease has largely shown images from Africa or Black and African people with the virus. This feeds into stereotypes of Africa being the epicenter of conditions and a foreign threat to western civilization. 

While a “significant portion” of reported cases have been identified amongst members of the LGBTQ+ community, the viral disease can spread to anyone via human-to-human contact. From direct contact with the lesions or rash to respiratory droplets from spending too much time face-to-face with a monkeypox carrier, the virus doesn’t discriminate (CDC). Yet queer people, specifically men who have sex with men (MSM), are also being singled out during the monkeypox outbreak and messaging. The narrative that monkeypox is an STD that spreads via sexual intercourse amongst MSM is not only dangerous (Newsweek). It’s false. Downplaying the risk by implying it is a gay disease mirrors the HIV/AIDS epidemic. And while you cannot die from getting monkeypox, contracting a viral disease is still debilitating and has adverse financial outcomes.

The consequence of such biased misinformation is hysteria and fear that overcomes evidence-based action, hindering effective health measures and identification. The reporting mimicked the HIV/AIDS response, or lack thereof, in the 1980s that classified the virus as exclusively a “gay disease” that spread amongst MSM. This false perception allowed the virus to spread and take the lives of thousands, including those who didn’t fit into the box of who was perceived to get HIV/AIDS (NBC News). 

In 2015, the World Health Organization advised against the association of diseases, infections, and syndromes with specific places or people as it had “unintended negative impacts by stigmatizing certain communities or economic sectors” (WHO). They mention how “certain disease names provoke a backlash against members of particular religious or ethnic communities, create unjustified barriers to travel, commerce and trade, and trigger needless slaughtering of food animals.” As a result, those portrayed are negatively impacted. 

Historically, diseases and viruses have been politicized and racialized to other marginalized people and countries, preserving a white-dominant hierarchy globally. Jewish people were initially persecuted for the Black Death. Haitians were wrongfully accused and imprisoned for introducing HIV/AIDS to the U.S, which was simultaneously untreated and labeled a “gay disease.” The Ebola outbreak was blamed as a consequence of West African practices (NPR, HRC, Washington Post). 

More recently, COVID-19 was labeled the “China virus” by President Trump, resulting in anti-Asian sentiments and violence. The subsequent Omicron variant discovery in southern African countries resulted in “discriminatory” travel bans and racist cartoon caricatures

Thanks to biased reporting and depictions, the association between a disease or virus and a marginalized community influence public perceptions of these communities and regions, often leading to dehumanization. Western news and media stereotypes fictionalize Africa as being an impoverished, disease-ridden, and ungovernable “Dark Continent”—ignoring the impact of colonialism, imperialism, and slavery inflicted by western governments—exposing residents to dehumanizing commentary and policies (BBC).

In 2020, two French doctors proposed using African people as guinea pigs for COVID-19 vaccines that they would be unable to otherwise receive due to global vaccine inequity (BBC, The ARD). Currently, only 17% of Africans are fully vaccinated compared to 66.7% of U.S. residents (Africa CDC, CDC). Before the coronavirus, the U.S. also placed travel restrictions for travelers from​ Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea during the 2014 Ebola epidemic in West Africa (CDC). Not only were American patients able to receive life-saving treatment inaccessible to their West African counterparts, but African immigrants in the U.S. experienced stigma similar to communities stigmatized by the AIDS epidemic (Vox, Washington Post, University of Cincinnati).

To counter the stigmatizing language, xenophobia, and stereotypes assigned by biased reporting in western media, the UNAIDS advocates respond with a rights-based, evidence-based approach and institute an “international coordination and solidarity” in global health issues. 

“This outbreak highlights the urgent need for leaders to strengthen pandemic prevention, including building stronger community-led capacity and human rights infrastructure to support effective and non-stigmatizing responses to outbreaks,” said Matthew Kavanagh, UNAIDS Deputy Executive Director. “Stigma hurts everyone. Shared science and social solidarity help everyone.”


KEY TAKEAWAYS

• Biased reporting and imagery of the monkeypox outbreak reinforce homophobic and racist stereotypes.

• Misconceptions of diseases negatively impact everyone, particularly more vulnerable populations.

• Western media and governments often attribute diseases and viruses to people of color and non-white countries. 

*This piece was originally published on June 7, 2022 and was updated on July 25, 2022.

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