The experience of SARS-related stigma at Amoy Gardens

Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) possesses characteristics that render it particularly prone to stigmatization. SARS-related stigma, despite its salience for public health and stigma research, has had little examination. This study combines survey and case study methods to examine subjective stigma among residents of Amoy Gardens (AG), the first officially recognized site of community outbreak of SARS in Hong Kong. A total of 903 residents of AG completed a self-report questionnaire derived from two focus groups conducted toward the end of the 3-month outbreak. Case studies of two residents who lived in Block E, the heart of the SARS epidemic at AG, complement the survey data. Findings show that stigma affected most residents and took various forms of being shunned, insulted, marginalized, and rejected in the domains of work, interpersonal relationships, use of services and schooling. Stigma was also associated with psychosomatic distress. Residents’ strategies for diminishing stigma varied with gender, age, education, occupation, and proximity to perceived risk factors for SARS such as residential location, previous SARS infection and the presence of ex-SARS household members. Residents attributed stigma to government mismanagement, contagiousness of the mysterious SARS virus, and alarmist media reporting. Stigma clearly decreased, but never completely disappeared, after the outbreak. The findings confirm and add to existing knowledge on the varied origins, correlates, and impacts of stigma. They also highlight the synergistic roles of inconsistent health policy responses and risk miscommunication by the media in rapidly amplifying stigma toward an unfamiliar illness. While recognizing the intrinsically stigmatizing nature of public health measures to control SARS, we recommend that a consistent inter-sectoral approach is needed to minimize stigma and to make an effective health response to future outbreaks.

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