Ron Barrett and the Contagion of Swine Flu

Ron Barrett, a medical anthropologist joining Macalester College, recently gave this interview Fears over Flu Can Be Contagious on NPR’s All Things Considered.

Ron discussed how his research on a breakout of plague in the northern Indian city of Surat provides insight into today’s reactions to swine flu. His basic point is that with infectious diseases, rumors and fears highlight existing tensions in a community, so stigma and panic can come to play a greater role in people’s reactions than the actual impact of the disease. Case in point – 78% of the medical professionals fled Surat, much more than the estimated third of the population that left.

Ron advocates the importance of transparency and providing reliable information. Otherwise, rumors can become more infectious than the disease itself. Twitter, for example, drove wild speculation about swine flu. So for reliable info, think Obama and his clear recommendations about what to do (wash your hands, cover your mouth when coughing), and not Joe Biden broadcasting fear on The Today Show.

Ron recently published his work on contagion and public reactions in Stigma in the Time of Influenza: Social and Institutional Responses to Pandemic Emergencies. Here’s the abstract:

This article examines the role of stigma in social and institutional responses to infectious disease emergencies, to better understand and minimize these dynamics in the event of a pandemic of virulent influenza. In addition to their impact on human suffering, fear and stigma can seriously delay detection and treatment efforts, cooperation with contact tracing and isolation measures, and the effective distribution of resources for the prevention and control of infectious diseases. These dynamics are illustrated by the Indian plague epidemic of 1994, which occurred in a region where H5N1 influenza has been detected recently. Public fear and stigma also played a significant role in the social and institutional responses to the 1918 influenza pandemic. These historical models provide important lessons for pandemic preparedness and global health policy.

Ron also has a recent book Aghor Medicine: Pollution, Death and Healing in Northern India. This entertaining shorter piece, Embracing the Fear of Disease, describes this work. Just a taste from its opening:

For centuries, the Aghori were known as wild-eyed, dreadlocked ascetics who lived naked on the cremation grounds, meditated on corpses, drank intoxicants from human skulls and engaged in ritual cannibalism.

In the past decades, however, the Aghori tradition has radically evolved. extending beyond the cremation grounds to become a mainstream movement known for social services, including healing of stigmatized diseases.

Ron has long been an advocate of integrative approaches within anthropology. His 2005 article, Self-Mortification and the Stigma of Leprosy in Northern India (pdf), analyzes the biocultural dynamics of social discrimination and physical disfigurement. He was also lead author of the 1998 Annual Review article on Emerging and Re-emerging Infectious Diseases: The Third Epidemiological Transition (pdf), which examined how globalization, antibiotic resistance and other contemporary factors have changed the modern dynamics of infectious disease.

To hear Ron speak about the plague and swine flu, here’s the NPR interview.

To learn more about Ron’s work, here’s his website.

Update – You can also see Ron speaking briefly on CBS evening news:

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