Killing Touch: Liberian Public Health Campaign to Prevent the Spread of Ebola

What would you do if you could no longer comfortably touch the people around you?

No shaking hands. No hugging. No placing a loving hand on a fevered (sweaty) brow—or caring for a loved one as they die.

This is true in West Africa where the Ebola epidemic is exploding, and without outside intervention, an estimated 1.4 million people may be infected by January 2015.

With Ebola, touch becomes deadly.
Ebola is spread by contact with bodily fluids. Diarrhea, blood, vomit, pee, poop, semen, spit—even sweat. The sicker the patient, the easier it is to catch, as the virus teems through the body. It is incredibly easy to catch through contact with the body fluids of dying Ebola patients. And it is incredibly deadly.

Hence a public health campaign against touch in Liberia. No direct contact. No spread.

This photo was taken by Epidemic Intelligence Service disease detective Dr. Allison Arwady, MD MPH, when she was in Liberia investigating the Ebola outbreak in July.

This photo was taken by Epidemic Intelligence Service disease detective Dr. Allison Arwady, MD MPH, when she was in Liberia investigating the Ebola outbreak in July.

Human touch is so basic. To help children succeed throughout life, the best thing we can do is simply to hold, touch, and cradle them in the first two years of life.
Touch increases confidence, decreases stress.
Humans say hello with a handshake, with an embrace.
When we feel bad, hugs make us feel better. Hugs release endorphins. Hugs are good for the world.
Caring for a loved one (or a stranger) when they fall ill is not possible without touch.
Can you walk away from your mother as she lies dying, refusing to touch the woman who gave birth to you? Refuse to hug your child and wipe away their tears and clean their runny nose and change their diapers when you return to your home afterwards?

What happens to an individual life without touch?
For otherwise healthy babies neglected in orphanages, they begin to try to rock themselves, banging their head against the wall in repetitive self-damaging behaviors. It leads to a lifetime of developmental delays.

From Liberia, the public health message begins: “My lovely friend, please, I don’t hate you.”
But still. No handshakes. No hugging.

What happens to a society where people have been warned not to touch each other?
That remains to be seen.
Liberia survived a vicious civil war that left seeing bodies dead by the side of a street a societal norm. 2003 it ended, with a successful gun-buy-back program. A disrupted social fabric, healing. And now? How does society heal when people literally are forbidden to reach out and touch each other, at risk of death?
Helene Cooper wrote of Ebola’s “cultural casualty”– the loss of handshakes, hugs and healing touch.
This cultural casualty may cause (separate from Ebola) real human casualties. A lack of touch deprives the human spirit. Human connectedness and confidence die, even among those who live, even among those lucky enough not to directly lose a loved one to Ebola. People in Liberia will have less human solace at a time when it is needed most. The sequelae of a lack of touch may be a decrease in individual resilience and strength when it is needed most to rebuild a devastated society.

Killing touch kills the human spirit. It is a social tragedy layered on top of a medical tragedy that in Liberia and other affected West African nations, people have lost the soothing balm of human touch.

Thank goodness that here in the United States, where we have no Ebola epidemic, only an epidemic of Ebola-fear-fever, we can reach out and hug our loved ones to find solace. We don’t need to worry about Ebola, not now. We need to worry about our peace of mind. And for us, now, hugs and human touch will help us soothe ourselves.

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