Why It Matters: Health and Medicine

Why demonstrate an understanding of the social construction of health?

This photo depicts medical workers with a face mask and gloves training for safety so they can enter infection zones.
Figure 1. Medical personnel are at the front lines of extremely dangerous work. Personal protective clothing is essential for any health worker entering an infection zone, as shown by these trainees for the UK’s National Health Service. (Photo courtesy of DFID – UK Department for International Development/flickr)

According to the World Health Organization and ABC Health News, on March 19, 2014, a “mystery” hemorrhagic fever outbreak occurred in Liberia and Sierra Leone. This outbreak was later confirmed to be Ebola, a disease that was first identified in 1976 in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The epidemic of 2014-2016 was sparked in a village of 31 households in Guinea, and was likely the result of deforestation causing infected wild animals to migrate closer to human settlements (A). The 2014 outbreak started a chain reaction in West Africa, sickening more than 8,000 people and leaving more than 4,000 dead by October of the same year.[1]

Ebola first entered the United States via missionary medical staff who were infected in West Africa and then transported home for treatment. The case of Thomas Eric Duncan, who unwittingly imported Ebola into the United States as he flew from Liberia to Texas in September 2014, increased the level of fear of the Ebola epidemic among the U.S. population.

As of April 24, 2016, the affected governments had reported a total of 28,657 suspected Ebola cases and 11,325 deaths caused by the disease, though the World Health Organization believes that this substantially understates the magnitude of the outbreak. Although the epidemic was contained for some time, the Ministry of Health of the Democratic Republic of the Congo later declared a new outbreak of Ebola; as of April, 2019, nearly 600 deaths had been confirmed to be due to the disease.[2]

What is the best response to a horrific and terminal virus like this? Restrict visitors from West Africa? Enhance training and protective gear for all U.S. medical workers and law enforcement? Many concerns continue to surround the disease and few agree upon the appropriate response(s).

The Ebola case brought many issues to the forefront. How would we know if we were at risk for a large-scale Ebola epidemic in the United States? In the short term, how do we best prevent, identify, and treat current and potential cases?

The sociology of health encompasses social epidemiology, disease, mental health, disability, demography, and medicalization. The way that we perceive and conceptualize health and illness is in constant evolution. As we learn to more efficiently control existing diseases and epidemics, new diseases develop. As our society evolves to be more global, the way that diseases spread evolves with it, and conventional approaches to prevent the spread of disease often fall short.

What does “health” mean to you? Do you believe that there are too many people taking prescription medications in U.S. society? Are you skeptical about people claiming they are “addicted” to gambling or “addicted” to sex? Can you think of anything that was historically considered a disease but is now considered within a range of normality? Or anything that has recently become known as a medical condition that was once considered evidence of laziness or other character flaws? These are some of the questions examined in the sociology of health.

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  1. World Health Organization (January 2015). Origins of the 2014 Ebola epidemic: One year into the Ebola epidemic. Retrieved from https://www.who.int/csr/disease/ebola/one-year-report/virus-origin/en/
  2. Ebola situation reports: Democratic Republic of the Congo. World Health Organization (April 2019) Ebola situation reports: Democratic Republic of the Congo. Retrieved from https://www.who.int/ebola/situation-reports/drc-2018/en/.


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