a pattern of surgical masks and condoms

A Tale of 2 Epidemics: HIV vs. COVID-19

Now don’t take this wrong: I am not in any way minimizing the threat of COVID-19 (coronavirus). In fact, due to some symptoms, I was just tested for it. So yes, I take it seriously. But has anyone besides me noted the contrast between response to this and response to other serious viral epidemics of the past? If you happen to think of COVID-19 vs. HIV in particular, you’re thinking like me.

HIV and COVID-19: a difference in response?

You may remember or have read about the response when HIV first came on the scene in the early 1980s. Because it was seen as a gay man’s disease (and we were living under a conservative government), it was basically swept under the rug until it became too big and ugly to ignore. In contrast, COVID-19 was taken seriously by most governments from the git-go, that is, by most humans whom we can take seriously.

According to an article published by CNN on March 18th, the US Government is planning for a worst-case scenario of 18 months or longer.1 As frightening as this is, HIV has been on the scene for 40 years now, and yet we’ve never seen a mobilization on this scale. True, HIV is not as contagious and therefore, in that way, is not as dangerous. But try telling that to the tens of thousands of loved ones left behind when AIDS struck down someone close to them.

At its peak, HIV seems to have had a higher mortality rate than COVID-19, except in those over 80.2 However, the mortality rate estimates for COVID-19 are all over the place, everywhere from 1 to 18 percent depending on age and other factors so it may be too early to draw definite conclusions.3 But once again, governments should pull out all the stops to fight any virus causing death.

Combatting HIV: A Plan for America

To combat HIV though, some good news. The CDC recently launched Ending the Epidemic: A Plan for America in February of 2020.4 Under this program, funds are being targeted to 50 of the communities most impacted by HIV. These include counties in rural areas as well as population centers such as San Juan, PR, and Washington, DC. A four-pronged approach is being proposed: diagnose, treat, prevent, and respond. To accomplish this, they are funding local health departments to assist in determining a plan tailored for their community.

The importance of a community-based approach

A major advantage I see in this plan is local involvement. The CDC seems to understand that racial, cultural, and economic differences play a big role in getting the message across. As articles here on H-I-V.net and other sources have highlighted, ethnic and racial minorities continue to be the hardest hit.5 By taking this community-based approach, we can hope to have more success. The message needs to be tailored specifically depending on the factors in the community.

For example, in the black community, one of the factors noted in the cited article from Advocate is homophobia in the church. If church is a central part of your life and community, this is a biggie. If this can be approached on a local level, hopefully, the message will reach those who need to hear it and overcome their fear and take action.

Appreciating how far we've come with HIV

It seems like there will never be a time without epidemics plaguing mankind in one form or another. But when the ability to control, vaccinate, and cure is there, we have won another battle. With COVID-19, we haven’t reached even the first milestone. With HIV, we have learned to control it and, with the use of PrEP, effectively prevent it. However, there is as of yet no vaccine, and a real cure is also down the road. But we’ve come a long way, let’s take it to the finish line. And we cannot let our voices be drowned out in the panic of current events.

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