"You're a Liberian, so you have a disease." Shoana Clarke Solomon, a Liberian photographer and television host, describes the discrimination her nine-year-old daughter faces at her American school in a YouTube video.
"Imagine, someone saying to your child: 'You're from Liberia, so you have a disease'. I am hurt and upset," Solomon says. "We live in a region that has been devastated by a deadly disease, but we're not all infected. It is wrong to stereotype and stigmatise an entire people. Remember we are human beings. I am a Liberian, not a virus."
The video's slogan "I am Liberian, not a virus" is now trending on social media, as Liberians and West Africans across the world post pictures of themselves holding signs carrying the line. As stigma and myths about Ebola escalate, Solomon's campaign is taking force.
The current outbreak of the virus has been unprecedented, with over 4,500 deaths in the last 10 months. Fatalities have almost exclusively been in West Africa. In Liberia alone, the virus has killed over 2,400 people, ravaging the already weakened healthcare infrastructure.
But beyond the death toll, the stigma and paranoia surrounding Ebola can be just as catastrophic as the disease itself.
Anna MacSwan, a spokesperson for the Red Cross, explains that as Ebola is relatively new to West Africa, fear of the virus is rife.
"This is the worst outbreak that has ever been seen," she tells IBTimes UK. "The fact that people have never experienced anything like it before, combined with it being a highly infectious and contagious disease and on such a scale all combine to, understandably, create an atmosphere where fear and mistrust is high."
Hysteria has been mounting since cases have emerged in the United States and Europe. In the last few months, Liberians, Sierra Leoneans, Nigerians, Guineans and others, have been discriminated against out of misaligned fear of contracting the virus.
In Dallas, Texas, where the first Ebola patient in the United States was diagnosed, Liberians have been taunted with calls to "go back" to Liberia. Two nurses who cared for Thomas Eric Duncan have since been diagnosed with Ebola. Panic has ensued, becoming less of a side effect of Ebola than an infectious disease itself.
The Texas cases have sparked calls for improvement in how cases of infection are handled. But they also highlight another important fact – that of the nearly 50 people who were exposed to Ebola before the nurses, none have been diagnosed with the disease.
"The high death rates associated with Ebola, and the horrific way in which people die, create a lack of faith in the medical system and a fear of those infected and affected," says Jane Moyo, of the charity Action Aid.
"Genuine, honest dialogue with people in affected communities is vital if stigma and prejudice are to be overcome. That includes community mobilisation and local leadership so that Ebola myths can be challenged. When this happens stigma decreases."
No cases of Ebola have been reported in Britain, but similarly, stigma still exists. In October, a Sierra Leonean boy was refused a visit to a Stockport school he had been due to attend – despite never having been infected with the virus. The headteacher blamed "misguided hysteria" for the cancellation, stating the stigma was "extremely disappointing".
'Ebola-free' Certificates and Education
In reality, both the US and UK have strong health and communication infrastructures in place to prevent the widespread transmission of diseases. Unlike counterparts in West Africa, western states have an adequate number of healthcare workers, disease surveillance mechanisms, public sanitation and education.
Stigma surrounding Ebola has a detrimental effect on services aimed at tackling the disease. Fears of the virus spreading, and the consequent calls to restrict travel from West Africa, threatens to devastate the economies of the region – further limiting their health systems. One of the most popular arguments in the rhetoric around the crisis is to seal the borders of west Africa – but experts say such procedures are only put in place to quash public fears, rather than offering any real boost to public health security.
Tom Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, previously said restricting travel will only heighten the risk of a global pandemic, exacerbating the crisis in West Africa. It has long been established that the disease can only be halted at its source – which would be impossible with closed borders.
"Even when governments restrict travel and trade, people in affected countries still find a way to move and it is even harder to track them systematically," Frieden said.
Instead, education is key to stifling stigma surrounding the virus. In Liberia, everyone who has recovered is being issued with a government certificate stating they are Ebola-free. This, Moyo says, is a huge help in calming fears.
"There are other simple and practical measures being introduced which are helping with reintegration into society," Moyo adds. "Ebola demands sustained and massive medical intervention to care for the sick and dying, as well as prevention and information campaigns."
"All members of society must be on board for that approach to work," she adds. "Without them the disease will not be stopped."