Ideas & Debate

Coronavirus stigma could worsen the disease burden

corona

Coronavirus stigma could worsen the disease burden. FILE PHOTO | NMG

Summary

  • So ingrained has this stigma become that the Ministry of Health has warned that it could undermine testing and treating efforts and put everyone at risk of contracting the virus.
  • Those who exhibit symptoms associated with it could hide and not seek medical attention for fear of this stigmatisation.
  • According to a recent study by TIFA Research, 41 percent of the respondents said they would not allow their children to play with recovered patients’ children, while 23 percent would not visit recovered patients.

For some time after Covid-19 was confirmed in Kenya, and the number of those infected started rising, many still queried its existence.

The Doubting Thomases often asked: ‘Do you know somebody who knows somebody who knows somebody who has coronavirus?’

Few could respond in the affirmative. This state of affairs has been linked to the secrecy that the disease has largely been shrouded in. A majority of those contracting the virus prefer remaining silent about it for fear of the stigma associated with it.

With every additional confirmed infection, the risk of contracting it rises. Besides increasing chances of the body cells encountering and sparring with the virus, stigma also inches closer

The moment one tests positive, few want to associate with them and keep their distance, as much as possible.

Family, friends and acquaintances stay away from the person infected and those close to them even after recovery and release from quarantine. Those whose kin succumb to the virus suffer even more stigmatisation. All this risks affecting their mental health.

UNDERMINE TESTING

So ingrained has this stigma become that the Ministry of Health has warned that it could undermine testing and treating efforts and put everyone at risk of contracting the virus.

Those who exhibit symptoms associated with it could hide and not seek medical attention for fear of this stigmatisation.

According to a recent study by TIFA Research, 41 percent of the respondents said they would not allow their children to play with recovered patients’ children, while 23 percent would not visit recovered patients.

The study also indicated that 37 percent would not attend the funeral of a close friend even if there were less than 15 mourners and social distancing is assured.

The stigma has been linked to limited understanding of the disease. Being a novel disease with little still known about it has contributed towards the irrational fear it has attracted. This has had people overreacting, often out of the insufficient information.

One of the riskiest consequences of this has been reflected on a general slump in the number of those proactively seeking professional medical attention.

The drastically rising number of those infected with Covid-19 has raised concern about preparedness and capacity of inpatient facilities to handle it.

It has also fuelled fears about risks of contracting it from hospitals and other health facilities. This has seen many prefer staying away from the facilities, even for outpatient service. Doctor appointments have also failed to be honoured.

As a result, outpatient facilities have had significantly less people visiting. This could be an indication that even those requiring medical attention are staying away, out of fear of the virus.

The failure to seek professional medical attention in time could have negative consequences on the health of individuals, whose condition could worsen. Communities could also suffer increased disease burden.

This could, in turn, imply that either those who are unwell are self-medicating, or ailments are going untreated.

This could have ramifications on the health situation in the country, including worsening treatable illnesses, chances of inaccurate self-diagnosis and drug reactions.

This calls for concerted measures to arrest the worrying trend. As we tackle the pandemic, extra care should be taken to avoid worsening the disease burden.

Those who fall ill need to be encouraged to seek specialised medical advice at health facilities, the Covid-19 situation notwithstanding.

As long as public health guidelines are strictly adhered to, there should be no cause for worry.

For as long as the recommended physical distances are maintained and protective personal equipment is adorned at all times, risks of contraction remain low.

PUBLIC EDUCATION

It is also incumbent upon healthcare providers to strengthen the confidence of those seeking services.

There is need for consistent public education with factual information on the disease as well as the need to seek medical attention whenever it is needed.

Innovative means of delivering healthcare such as Pigia Penda, a 24-hour free virtual consultation service, need to be scaled up.

The overall aim is ensuring that no healthcare needs should be neglected due to distractions from the pandemic.

Patients should also enjoy the option of having medication delivered to them, as well as setting up appointments for the ante-natal and infant clinics to minimise waiting time.

No case should go unattended.

Dr Njue is the head of clinical services at Penda Health