Public Health News Watch Wednesday: Report for April 26, 2017

This week’s Public Health News Watch shifts the focus towards pop culture as a Grammy award winner, and one of the foremost activists for the HIV/AIDS crisis has been taken ill with what news outlets are reporting as a “rare and potentially deadly bacterial infection.”

Music star Elton John owes nothing to the healthcare community.

The Grammy-winning singer and piano player, who has recorded dozens of pop hits over the course of his 40-plus-year career, has reportedly raised more than $200 million for HIV/AIDS-related causes through his Elton John AIDS Foundation, which he established in 1992. Among the goals of the foundation: to end the epidemic by increasing understanding of and access to approaches designed to prevent infection.

He explained why the cause, for him, was such a personal one when he spoke at the International AIDS Conference in Washington, DC, in 2012. “This young man hit absolute rock bottom,” he said of himself at the time, as reported by The Guardian. “His life was a mess, he was spiraling out of control. He should have died. To be honest, he nearly did… By all rights I shouldn’t be here today. I should be dead. I should have contracted HIV in the 1980s and died in the 1990s… Every day I wonder, how did I survive?”

And he wrote a book about it, called Love Is the Cure: on Life, Loss and the End of AIDS. All of which makes the decision by he and his representatives to keep his current health status vague all the more surprising.

For those of you who, like us, do not typically follow celebrity news, John was forced to cancel shows in Las Vegas and California scheduled over the next 2 weeks because he contracted what his representatives described as a “potentially deadly” bacterial infection while on tour in South America. According to a report by the BBC, John returned home to the UK, where he spent 2 days in the hospital. “Thankfully, Elton’s medical team identified this quickly and treated it successfully. He is expected to make a full and complete recovery,” his representatives said in a statement, as reported by the BBC.

His management offered no other details. Multiple outlets reported the same information—or lack thereof.

Of course, like any other patient, John—who was born Reginald Kenneth Dwight in England in 1947—is entitled to his privacy. However, as an activist in the HIV/AIDS arena, and the work he has done certainly qualifies him as one, he has to understand the social stigma surrounding, many, if not all, infectious diseases. HIV/AIDS and other diseases associated with sexual transmission and injection drug use (among, as we know, other causes) are arguably at the high end of the stigma “continuum,” assuming such a thing exists, but all diseases that can be transmitted from human-to-human, animal-to-human, and food/water-to-human bring with them a certain amount of collateral damage in the form of public perception—toward those who contract them as well as the regions they affect.

Ask Brazil and Puerto Rico about tourism post-Zika, for example (officials in the latter have been accused of downplaying Zika over tourism fears, according to reports in the Daily Mail and other outlets). Or, how tourism and commerce have fared in west Africa since the Ebola outbreak in 2014-2015. These diseases clearly have other, more profound, consequences; however, the social impact cannot and should not be ignored.

John’s current tour, which is scheduled to run through May 2018, took him through Santiago, Chile and multiple cities in Brazil earlier this month. Is his infection related to the countries in which he performed? Or, is it simply the result of being a 70-year-old man on a global tour, with all the travel and heavy workload that entails? After all, pneumonia can be deadly—and you do not have to travel to South America to contract it. I can imagine officials in Chile and Brazil would like to quash any rumors regarding how John fell ill, before the media and others fill in the blanks.

Yes, John is entitled to maintain his privacy. But as someone who has seen first-hand the price of misinformation and disinformation in public health, he and his representatives may want to ask themselves: At what cost?

Brian P. Duleavy is a medical writer and editor based in New York. His work has appeared in numerous healthcare-related publications. He is the former editor of Infectious Disease Special Edition.