Research Article: Extending the “Social”: Anthropological Contributions to the Study of Viral Haemorrhagic Fevers

Date Published: April 16, 2015

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Hannah Brown, Ann H. Kelly, Almudena Marí Sáez, Elisabeth Fichet-Calvet, Rashid Ansumana, Jesse Bonwitt, N’Faly Magassouba, Foday Sahr, Matthias Borchert, Archie C. A. Clements.

Abstract: None

Partial Text: Emerging Viral Haemorrhagic Fevers (VHFs) offer a frontier for a “One-Health” research agenda; the joined-up, or collaborative, effort of multiple disciplines to attain optimal health for people, animals, and the environment (e.g., Our multidisciplinary work on Lassa fever and Ebola Virus Disease in Guinea and Sierra Leone explores the connections between humans, rodents such as the Mastomys natalensis (Natal multimammate mouse), and the broader environmental conditions that facilitate virus transmission. In this viewpoint, we outline our vision for an anthropological contribution to the study of VHFs.

The recent surge of interest in the significance of animals to social life in anthropology [9–11] provides a valuable entry point for thinking about interspecies transmission. This work recognises that humans do not simply relate to animals as sources of sustenance or as symbols of the natural world, but that animals and humans are engaged in “social” relationships, which are created through the actions of both parties. For instance, anthropological work on the economies, practices, and symbolic resonances of hunting has relevance for how humans come into contact with the hosts of the Ebola, Lassa, and Marburg viruses [12]. Extending these concerns with processes of commensality can shed considerable light on how occasions for pathogenic exchange between species arise.

Understanding human amplification requires a different repertoire of empirical resources from those necessary to investigate the dynamics of primary transmission. VHF outbreaks in Africa bring an influx of disease managers, volunteers, and clinicians. These teams introduce rapid disease control interventions structured by enormous inequities of resource availability. Their work may involve forming infection control fences from logs and sticks or isolation wards from tents or containers. Corpses of loved ones are buried by people trained to follow strict protocol for donning and doffing the strange garb of full body protection; bedding and other objects that have come in contact with the sick are burnt (see, for example, Alain Epelboin’s film, Ebola au Congo These reorganisations of spatial and material worlds are among the most striking aspects of interventions to manage Ebola and other VHF outbreaks, yet their significance for transmission has not drawn the sustained attention of anthropologists and other social scientists.

An extended “social” lens suggests new sites at which anthropologists might usefully contribute to VHF research, prevention, and control. Existing anthropological work on VHFs has largely focused on how to modify outbreak control efforts to make them more acceptable to the local population and how to decrease the risk of secondary transmission. This line of inquiry is very important indeed. These insights can be further developed through ethnographic attention to hospital spaces, materials, and practices, and how these are used by both local populations and public health teams. In this way, anthropologists can deepen understandings of the social dimensions of care, the lasting impact of epidemics, and the efforts to control them.



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