Last Friday, Illinois health officials presented plans to deal with any future Ebola cases in the state. These include establishing a test lab, taking the temperature of some foreign travelers, and forming a task force aimed at better communication.
But a trip to a nearby West African lunch truck revealed that big communication gaps still remain in some parts of the city.
As the West African vendor served up plates of fufu and goat, he said that, so far, he hadn’t seen any shortages in ingredients imported from Africa.
But a customer standing in line thought the vendor was, instead, being asked about the safety of West African food.
“Ebola cannot infect our food,” said the cab driver who only wanted to be identified as Chris. “Because our food is properly cooked. It is cooked to at least 90 degrees.”
Chris continued by sharing his view on the true origin of Ebola.
“That thing (Ebola) is a white man’s disease,” he said. “They created it in a lab to kill us, and to make the pharmaceutical companies rich.”
Within minutes, fellow cab drivers joined in the conversation, asking “Why is it that the black man who came from Africa, he died? But the white man lived. We won’t let anyone fool us anymore.”
While some of these views may seem extreme, they echo a larger question in the world health community about why an Ebola vaccine has been so long in coming.
Laurie Garrett is a Senior Fellow for Gobal Health at the Council on Foreign Relations. She said market forces affect the development of these medications.
“Because it’s so rare, and it occurs among very poor people, where is the financial market incentive for the pharmaceutical industry to get in there and commercialize it?” she asked.
Indeed, until recently, that incentive has not existed. But it did get a big push last month when the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation committed $50 million to addressing Ebola.
Still, Garrett says there are other factors that have slowed progress on an Ebola vaccine.
“How do you clinically test a vaccine against a disease that you cannot possibly ethically induce in your test subjects, and that occurs so rarely,” she asks. “Also, you don’t really have a population that is routinely exposed in order to test how well the vaccine really works.”
One Liberian-born, American professor offered up an answer to that question. He believes human trials have already begun...on unsuspecting Africans as part of a plan by the U.S. Department of Defense. The Delaware State plant pathologist detailed these suspicions in a letter that went viral last month in Liberia’s largest daily paper, further fueling speculation.
This and other factors have driven continuing suspicion about a racial component to the outbreak.
“The white woman who went to England: she was healed,” Chris, the cab driver, noted. “The nurse who went to Spain: She was healed. The white boy who who came to America. He was healed. But the black man who came to Texas, in America—in America he died.”
Last week, Illinois’ Director of Public Health LeMar Hasbrouck stressed that communication will be key in the Ebola fight. And that the new task force would have to: “Coordinate public messaging so we are not giving different messages to different audiences, so we are all on the same page there.”
WBEZ asked Hasbrouck’s department how and if it planned to address some of the racially-based perceptions on Ebola. The department did not respond.
Monica Eng is a WBEZ producer and co-host of the Chewing The Fat podcast. Follow her at @monicaeng or write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org