Twenty-five years ago I was huddled by a radio listening to the BBC broadcaster tell of the fall of the Berlin Wall. As I listened, I became more and more aware of how much Americans take our freedom for granted.
Earlier that same week I moved to Geneva, Switzerland to begin an assignment with the World Health Organization (WHO); not only was it a big move, it was also my first ever trip overseas. I was in a temporary apartment, didn’t speak the language (French), didn’t know anyone and, although very excited, was generally overwhelmed. Meanwhile, only a few hundred miles away, history was being made. I didn’t realize it at the time, but those first few weeks in Geneva helped shape my career and, really, the person I became from that point forward.
My assignment at WHO was to coordinate a global conference on integrating HIV/ AIDS into the curriculum of health professional schools across the globe. While healthcare professionals weren’t scared like they were when the disease was first discovered, they really didn’t have much experience with HIV/ AIDS. So my project was to integrate this disease into curricula to teach a new generation of healthcare workers. It was an exciting and difficult challenge not only because of the heavy subject matter at hand or the language which was still unfamiliar to me, but also because I had to navigate the complex bureaucracy of WHO.
When I began this project, the public was just beginning to understand that HIV wasn’t a gay disease or an African disease, but it was a disease that could impact anyone. In fact, we were seeing heterosexual transmission explode in Africa. There was a huge stigma attached to AIDS causing those who were infected to be shunned in public and in the workplace.
As the international conference commenced in Istanbul, Turkey, I felt enormous pride that we were doing something, but it was short lived. One day a man who was HIV positive showed up at the meeting looking for care. Despite being unable to publicize the meeting because of the stigma, this man heard that all these health professionals were coming together in his city to discuss his disease. He was desperate and really had nowhere to turn in his community. He was an outcast and felt like he lost his freedom. The man cried when we told him that it wasn’t really a medical meeting and that we weren’t able to help him directly. My heart broke. I remember going back into the meeting and sharing his story with a colleague from the Turkish health ministry who took down his information and promised to reach out. (I’m fairly certain he did that to placate me, not for real follow up. I’ll never know for sure.)
By that point the Berlin Wall was fully down, people were passing back and forth between East and West Germany, and we were getting glimpses of hope for the future. Back in Geneva, I began to explore the connections between global public health and basic human freedoms. The fall of the wall and my experiences in Istanbul really solidified my desire to be part of improving health for all. It was abundantly clear that good health provided freedom in so many ways. I had found my niche.
I’ve thought a lot about the man in Istanbul recently as I’ve listened to stories about Ebola. Here, too, we have a new and very scary disease. Except that it’s not really new, but new to many in America. The stigma now being associated with Ebola is much like that of AIDS 25 or more years ago. The treatment of returning healthcare workers – heroes, in my mind – is shameful and disappointing. The lack of respect for information shared by scientific and medical experts, people who have studied Ebola for their entire career, is frustrating. And the worst of all, watching public fear escalate and place demands on decision makers is deeply troubling.
Healthcare workers in any region – whether those testing samples in New York City or those treating patients in Sierra Leone – deserve their freedom to move freely until medical experts determine they present a risk to the public. Patients who have recovered from Ebola deserve their freedom as they return to life in good health. And we all deserve freedom from fear, something that is given to me every time I speak with colleagues who understand the intricacies of how Ebola operates and how it can be contained.
My hope for the future is that we as public health professionals, healthcare workers, neighbors and as Americans can move beyond stigma to a better place, one where health is recognized as both a right and a freedom.
*Photo: World Health Organization’s headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland