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Mitman offers perspective on ‘toxic ecology’ surrounding Ebola crisis

September 22, 2014

In an essay published Sept. 17 in the New England Journal of Medicine, Gregg Mitman, director of the Nelson Institute Center for Culture, History and Environment, reflects on the Ebola crisis in West Africa and the “ecology of fear” associated with it.

Mitman, who is the Vilas Research and William Coleman Professor of the History of Science, Medical History, and Environmental Studies at UW-Madison, traveled to the Liberia–Guinea border – a region heavily affected by the deadly virus – in June to finish work on a documentary. He writes in his essay:

The journey to Liberia in June had been uncertain. The international media had been mostly quiet about the slow burn of the Ebola outbreak in Liberia and neighboring Guinea and Sierra Leone in early March, when I began planning the trip. But I soon started following reports of Ebola cases through personal contacts and Liberian news sources. In late May, as I was preparing to leave, information in the Western press and on government websites was still spotty.

In late July, when word came that two American health care workers in Liberia had become infected, the outbreak suddenly drew global headlines labeling it an “epidemic.” Ignited by media attention, fear erupted and spread faster than the virus itself. Quarantine is now the watchword. Fear of Ebola escaping the African continent has finally brought international attention.

While some aspects of Ebola's ecology are known, Mitman writes, “the fear surrounding the virus has its own ecology that needs to be understood. … Western attitudes associating equatorial Africa with deadly diseases such as malaria, yellow fever, and Ebola abound.”

Gregg Mitman
Gregg Mitman

In addition, he says, the fear displayed toward doctors and nurses in affected areas reflect the scars and painful memories of past medical encounters in West Africa. (In the days immediately following the publication of Mitman’s essay, news spread of the discovery of the bodies of eight members of an Ebola education team in southeastern Guinea, the victims of a deadly attack.)

Mitman’s documentary, “A Film Never Made,” produced with filmmaker Sarita Siegel and Nelson Institute graduate student and Liberia native Emmanuel Urey, explores a 1926 Harvard medical expedition to Liberia, undertaken on behalf of the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company. In 1926, Firestone gained access to 1 million acres of land to supply the United States with rubber free from British control. As Mitman explains, knowledge of tropical medicine was vital to the company's success.

He writes:

In 1926, the eight-member team had traveled for 4 months through the Liberian interior, collecting blood, tumors, urine, and photographs of diverse ethnic groups. Some people ran away when they saw these strangers. The routes the expedition traveled were those used by European and West African slave traders, white missionaries, and Liberian soldiers recently sent to conquer the interior. Why stick around when strangers had been such potent contributors to the local ecology of fear?

Mitman concludes, “In this moment of crisis, fears arising from difference and ignorance of the historical and cultural contexts that underlie mistrust create a toxic ecology in which the Ebola virus thrives and spreads.” Read Mitman’s full essay on the New England Journal of Medicine website.

In addition to the documentary project that originally brought Mitman to Liberia, he has been inspired to produce an additional short film about the Ebola outbreak and the ensuing crisis in Liberia. Learn more about that project, titled “An Invisible War”.

Photo, top left: Residents of Matam, Conakry, listen to UNICEF explain the current outbreak of Ebola and ways to stop the spread. Credit UNICEF Guinea, via Creative Commons license.