A strong parallel between HIV and Ebola was drawn by Tom Frieden, M.D., director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), at an annual meeting of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund in Washington, D.C.
"In the 30 years I've been working in public health, the only thing like this has been AIDS," he said, as reported by NBC News.
He added, "We have to work now so that this is not the world's next AIDS."
HIV and Ebola are both incurable viruses that trigger widespread stigma, and the similarities don't end there. But there are also significant differences. David Heitz of Healthline News compares and contrasts Ebola and HIV; here is a selection from his analysis:
HIV and Ebola are both viruses. Both emerged in Africa … neither has a vaccine, and both are fatal if left untreated. Both are carried by host animals and then transmitted to humans, and both may have made that transition when hunters ate bush meat.
Early Attention From Political Leaders
Many top government officials have already spoken openly about the threat of Ebola. President Ronald Reagan did not say the word AIDS until six years into the epidemic.
Ebola and HIV are both transmissible via bodily fluids, though Ebola is slightly easier to transmit. Heitz writes:
HIV can only be transmitted through blood or breast milk, or via sexual intercourse, according to the CDC http://www.cdc.gov/hiv/basics/transmission.html>>. Ebola is slightly easier to spread, but is still much less transmissible than more common infections like the flu.
The number of fluids that can spread Ebola is greater than those that spread HIV. Ebola can be spread by blood and sexual fluids, like HIV, but also by exposure to urine, saliva, sweat, feces and vomit, according to the CDC. In addition, HIV requires a direct route into the bloodstream, while fluids carrying the Ebola virus can also be transmitted via broken skin or mucous membranes in the eyes, nose or mouth.
HIV can have a long asymptomatic period, with some people showing no symptoms for up to 10 years, but can be transmitted during that time. Ebola's incubation period is typically shorter than 21 days. Symptoms appear quickly but, unlike HIV, a person must be actively exhibiting symptoms in order to pass the virus along.
Daliah Mehdi, chief clinical officer for AIDS Foundation of Chicago, told Healthline that not making a comparison between Ebola and HIV may actually be stigmatizing to those living with HIV.
"We need to stop thinking of HIV as this special, untouchable, unique disease," she said. "Here's something that in some ways mirrors our experience with HIV and could potentially come down the same road. To stigmatize it as one of a kind, we're not taking our collective experience and trying to get best practices out of that, and I think that's a terrible mistake."
When AIDS was first discovered in the U.S. in 1981 among a group of gay men in Los Angeles, it was labeled "gay-related immune deficiency," or GRID. The idea that only a certain group of people can get HIV led to a lot of the stigma and misinformation around HIV in the early days. Mehdi similarly warned that thinking Ebola will only affect poor Africans and African immigrants will bring about the same results.
Of course, a lack of funding was one of the enemies of efforts to stem the HIV epidemic in the early days, as well. Scant resources were put into fighting the epidemic by the U.S. government and other nations, and a similar battle over funding is now happening on a global scale.
National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director Francis S. Collins recently told the Huffington Post that we would have a vaccine for Ebola were it not for funding cuts to the NIH's budget. Medhi pushed back on that thought, saying "Is it useful now to sit and point fingers at who made those cuts? What is helpful is to examine how to redirect funding."
Mathew Rodriguez is the community editor for TheBody.com and TheBodyPRO.com.
Follow Mathew on Twitter: @mathewrodriguez.