Understanding Epidemics


By Martel Reid-Warden

HIV H9 T-cell. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

June 5, 1981. The date HIV was first discovered to be present in this country. Twenty-three years later, scientists are now able to calculate the location and decade that the disease first appeared in this civilization. Through the use of statistical methods and genetic sequencing data, the origins of the strain of HIV responsible for around 90 percent of infections across the globe can be traced to as far back as the 1920s in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo. According to Oxford scientists behind these discoveries, the disease was revealed to have spread through the interaction of sex workers and poor medical practices.

Though in the 1980s of course, HIV’s initial arrival on US shores was met with an err of serenity coupled with the complacency among those who believed the disease could only be contracted by a particular demographic. Ronald Reagan, the president at the time of the outbreak, rather infamously displayed a lack of concern towards the disease which may well have attributed to the public’s serenity. The public was led to believe that the disease could only be spread through sexual intercourse with gay men after a small group of homosexual men from Los Angeles initially contracted the disease.

The mistruth led to the disease being referred to as the “gay-related immune deficiency,” or GRID–a play on AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome). The misconception that the disease could only be contracted by a particular demographic led to an unnecessary amount of misinformed individuals contracting the disease.

Daliah Mehdi, chief clinical officer for AIDS Foundation of Chicago, recently warned that maintaining the view that Ebola will only impact those living in West Africa will bring about similar unwarranted cases of individuals contracting the disease.

It is no secret that the recent outbreak of Ebola has caused mass hysteria among Americans that had previously been unaware of its impending arrival in to this country. The terror Ebola is amassing in recent news cycles has surpassed that caused by the HIV outbreak, which has so far killed more than 1.8 million Americans, with over 1.1 million people currently living with the disease.

Comparisons between these two deadly diseases are somewhat commonplace in the media, given that both diseases came to this country via Africa as well as how fatal each disease is. The augmented media coverage devoted towards uncovering the latest news pertaining to Ebola also parallels the attention exhibited to HIV when the full extent of its deadly nature was discovered.

The decades since have seen strides taken to extend the lives of carriers of the disease through antiretroviral therapy (ART) which crucially prevents carriers from transmitting the disease on to others. Access to such therapy may prove costly to many of the HIV positive individuals living with the disease in poorer parts of the globe with costs starting at $115 per year. At the end of 2013, 11.7 million people were receiving ART in low and middle-income countries, which represents around 36 percent of the 32.6 million or so people living with HIV in those countries.

By comparison, new revelations are continuously being made in regard to the means by which the Ebola virus can be transmitted. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently revealed that Ebola can be spread through sneezing. The public should understandably display an err of caution, especially when high profile public health figure such as Tom Frieden, MD, director of the US of CDC is also drawing comparisons between HIV/AIDS and Ebola.

“In the 30 years I’ve been working in public health, the only thing like this has been AIDS,” he said before the annual meeting of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund in Washington. “We have to work now so this is not the world’s next AIDS.”

In an age where social media can propel rumors into facts and news broadcasters pull no stops in delivering the latest stories–in some cases at the expense of a story’s validity–people will often take minimal pieces of information and develop an entire world view from it. As such, Frieden’s recent comments should certainly rustle a few feathers.

With both diseases originating in Africa, issues may arise from the stigmatizing of people that have African ties, similarly to the way homosexual men were stigmatized during the initial outbreak of HIV/AIDS. The HIV/AIDS outbreak has been mollified over the years through informed members of the population refusing to adhere to stigmatizations and ignorant views and that were initially spread about the virus.

The AIDS myths that have circulated since the disease was first discovered have certainly ranged from strange to completely inexplicable. The belief that AIDS was spread among humans through interactions with monkeys was certainly one of the more prevalent misconceptions spread among the younger generation. Over 30 years later, through the painstaking process of distinguishing the facts from the laughable rumors, the public’s understanding of the disease has now been raised to a knowledgeable level. It remains to be seen how long it will take for this process to be replicated in relation to Ebola.

The origins and means in which Ebola can be transmitted is something that the public are continuously being informed of by scientists and respected health figures. This is certainly a useful component when looking at the issue of raising the public’s understanding of the disease to an informed level. If the public are able to separate the facts from the fallacies presented by all the media regarding Ebola, progress will certainly be made in replicating the advancement witnessed since AIDS was initially discovered.