Priscilla Wald on the Outbreak Narrative

The news that the first case of ebola in the United States has been diagnosed has the media in a frenzy and some people in Dallas panicking: taking their children out of school, calling for border closures and general quarantines. Priscilla Wald, Professor of English and Women’s Studies at Duke University, is not surprised by the reaction, which follows a narrative very similar to past epidemics, and she counsels in this Canada.com story that it is important to try to quell people’s fears. In light of the epidemic, and the predictable reactions to it, we offer an excerpt from Wald’s 2008 book Contagious: Cultures, Carriers, and the Outbreak Narrative in which she explains her concept of “the outbreak narrative.”

978-0-8223-4153-6_prContagion is more than an epidemiological fact. It is also a foundational concept in the study of religion and of society, with a long history of explaining how beliefs circulate in social interactions. The concept of contagion evolved throughout the twentieth century through the commingling of theories about microbes and attitudes about social change. Communicable disease compels attention—for scientists and the lay public alike—not only because of the devastation it can cause but also because the circulation of microbes materializes the transmission of ideas. The interactions that make us sick also constitute us as a community. Disease emergence dramatizes the dilemma that inspires the most basic human narratives: the necessity and danger of human contact.

The outbreak narrative—in its scientific, journalistic, and fictional incarnations—follows a formulaic plot that begins with the identification of an emerging infection, includes discussion of the global networks throughout which it travels, and chronicles the epidemiological work that ends with its containment. As epidemiologists trace the routes of the microbes, they catalog the spaces and interactions of global modernity. Microbes, spaces, and interactions blend together as they animate the landscape and motivate the plot of the outbreak narrative: a contradictory but compelling story of the perils of human interdependence and the triumph of human connection and cooperation, scientific authority and the evolutionary advantages of the microbe, ecological balance and impending disaster.

The conventions of the paradigmatic story about newly emerging infections have evolved out of earlier accounts of epidemiological efforts to address widespread threats of communicable disease. While I use “the outbreak narrative” to refer to that paradigmatic story, which followed the identification of HIV, I use “outbreak narratives” broadly to designate those epidemiological stories. I return to the early years of bacteriology and public health in the United States to trace the impact of the discovery of the microbe on attitudes toward social interactions and collective identity that characterize the outbreak narrative of disease emergence.

Outbreak narratives and the outbreak narrative have consequences. As they disseminate information, they affect survival rates and contagion routes. They promote or mitigate the stigmatizing of individuals, groups, populations, locales (regional and global), behaviors, and lifestyles, and they change economies. They also influence how both scientists and the lay public understand the nature and consequences of infection, how they imagine the threat, and why they react so fearfully to some disease outbreaks and not others at least as dangerous and pressing. It is therefore important to understand the appeal and persistence of the outbreak narrative and to consider how it shapes accounts of disease emergence across genres and media.

Read the entire introduction here.

Copyright Duke University Press, 2008.

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