In the early 1980’s a new disease entered the U.S. that had doctors scrambling to find answers. A number of gay men in both New York and California were experiencing treatment resistant diseases and cancers that were extremely uncommon. Luckily, doctors were able to relate the diverse presentations of the new disease fairly quickly. In the early days, this disease didn’t have a name. Today, we know it as Human Immunodeficiency Virus or HIV. To put U.S. cases of HIV in perspective, currently the CDC estimates that “1,144,500 persons aged 13 years and older are living with HIV infection, including 180,900 (15.8%) who are unaware of their infection1.”
With new cases of Ebola presenting in the U.S., it is important to compare our handling of patients to that of the early days of the HIV outbreak. When we look at Ebola vs. HIV: similarities and differences, we can find ways to improve our initial response thereby gaining better control of the spread of diseases with no currently known cure and high death rates.
Misinformation in the early days of HIV caused many to believe that only gay men need fear the infection. Since then, we have learned differently. Many of the early cases of HIV could have been prevented had we known about the danger to our blood supply and had a more complete understanding of how HIV spreads. Currently Ebola is on the tipping point between those who want to believe it is “someone else’s disease” and those who fear contracting it from any stranger they meet. This combination of fear and denial is the perfect atmosphere to create larger spread of the infection. Although Ebola does not hide in a person’s system creating the risk of invisible carriers, its early symptoms are flu-like. We live in a country that is very used to going to work when they are ill. Ebola becomes contagious once symptoms present so denial is a dangerous attitude. Until real, truthful information on prevention is widely understood, diseases are far harder to contain.
Early treatment is also very important. Luckily, we have known options for the treatment of Ebola. We have been developing medications to battle the outbreak in Africa for some time and feel that we understand how to fight the illness. Advances in these treatments are already in development. This differs greatly from early treatment of HIV where doctors were forced to try options based on best guesses pulled from incomplete evidence. Had we been studying the HIV virus for as long as we have been studying Ebola, we would have had much better chances to minimize its effects on our population.
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