8 Mistakes We're Making About Ebola That We Also Made When AIDS Appeared

Anyone who was alive in the 1980s will find these headlines familiar:

  • “Rare cancer seen!”
  • “AIDS: Fatal, Incurable, and Spreading!”
  • “AIDS Alert After 3 Babies Die!”
  • “Now No One is Safe From AIDS!”

The sheer panic the new and unfamiliar disease caused was mirrored and amplified in the media in a way we have not seen since. Until now. The parallels between reactions to Ebola and AIDS are evident in the media coverage of the crisis today. The same jittery headlines, same hysterical fear of a deadly disease, same paranoia, and in some cases, same prejudices.

The head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Thomas Frieden, who was also involved in the fight against AIDS, recently compared the two diseases. "In my 30 years in public health, the only thing that has been like this is AIDS,” he said. “We have to work now so that this is not the world's next AIDS."

From a medical standpoint, there are notable similarities between AIDS and Ebola. Both are caused by viruses that originated in Africa, have high mortality rates (AIDS much less so now that effective anti-viral cocktails have been developed), and have no effective cure. Another similarity: they are just not that easy to catch, contrary to all the hysteria. It would be nice if we could learn our lessons from past mistakes, but so far, it’s not clear that we have. Here are eight mistakes Americans are making with Ebola that we also made with AIDS.

1. The victims are stigmatized. In 1981, the New York Times reported that 41 homosexual men had come down with a very rare cancer, and eight of them died within two years of diagnosis. AIDS was then called Gay-Related Immune Deficiency (GRID). The article set off what became an AIDS media frenzy in the ensuing years, with politicians inevitably joining the fray. Headlines like the ones above became commonplace. At first the disease was thought to be a “homosexual disease” (rather than a disease initially caught by homosexuals). Gay people were victims of hate crimes and discrimination even more than before AIDS struck. When cases were reported in the Haitian community, they too were ostracized, as were intravenous drug users when AIDS began spreading among them, too. The result: Already marginalized people in American society became even more stigmatized.

Today, the hysteria is being whipped up against Africans — basically all Africans—who are being stigmatized en masse as agents of our potential destruction. HIV specialist Daliah Mehdi, of AIDS Foundation Chicago, saw this parallel, and recently told the website Healthline, “Here’s something [Ebola] 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.”

2. Misguided calls for travel bans. In the '80s, Senator Jesse Helms, the right-wing Republican from North Carolina, called for banning travel into the U.S. for anyone infected with AIDS. Right-wingers are again calling for a travel ban on Africa. (They don’t make any distinctions between which countries in Africa though only three are experiencing Ebola outbreaks: Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea.) Failing a travel ban, they are demanding automatic quarantines for people traveling to the U.S. from Africa, sick or not. Fox News recently called for special isolation centers around the country for any West African entering the country. Prominent Republicans like John Boehner, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Bobby Jindal and Marco Rubio have all proposed outright bans on travel to or from West Africa.

However, healthcare officials have been clear on this issue: banning travel would not work to stop the spread of Ebola. Those with any means at all would likely get around the ban by first traveling to an intermediary country, then to the U.S., making it harder to track the disease, which is the best hedge against its spread. The world is just too interconnected at this point for a travel ban to make any sense. President Obama, so far, is not giving in to political and public pressure for such a ban. Ironically, it was Obama, only four years ago, who finally lifted the ban on HIV-infected travelers that the Helms Amendment had instituted in 1987.

3. Overblown fear of proximity to the infected. Much as Hazmat suits have become a familiar Ebola-era sight, during the early days of the AIDS crisis, it was not uncommon to see police raiding gay bars wearing gloves, masks and other protective gear. When Magic Johnson, the star basketball player for the Los Angeles Lakers revealed he had HIV, he was forced to retire. When he decided he was healthy enough to return to the game, many players, like Karl Malone, another star player for the Utah Jazz, loudly protested his presence, and Johnson eventually had to retire once more, this time for good. 

Many will remember the case of Ryan White, a young student in Indiana who was infected with AIDS from a tainted blood transfusion. Panicked parents loudly protested his presence in the same classroom as their children, and White was forced, for a period of time to attend school remotely from home. Mirroring that AIDS panic, talk show host Seth Meyers coined the term “Fearbola,” the irrational fear of catching Ebola. 

4. Leadership (and lack thereof) from the top. AIDS phobia was stoked by a combination of ignorance, media overkill and political opportunism, just as Ebola phobia is today. One aspect that has thankfully not followed the AIDS path has been leadership from the top. President Obama is making some of the right moves, sending troups and supplies to affected countries in Africa, a little late, but he's doing it. He has acknowledged the disease and the fear, and is responding thoughtfully. In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan chose to completely ignore AIDS. When he finally did acknowledge the public health crisis, after more than 40,000 people in the U.S. had died, he placed the onus on parents and schools to teach their children “moral” choices, rather than enlist the help of the U.S. government.

5. Crazy rumors and myths flying. Just as today, many people erroneously fear that Ebola can be transmitted through the air, through water and through food. (Ebola is spread only through direct contact with the bodily fluids of an infected person actively displaying Ebola symptoms.) In the ‘80s, wildly inaccurate rumors flew about the transmission of AIDS, including a still-prevalent myth about AIDS-carrying mosquitos. (Wrong. Similar to Ebola, AIDS is transmitted through direct exchange of bodily fluid, although AIDS is actually easier to transmit since even asymptomatic people can infect others through intimate contact.)

6. Misguided, overly optimistic predictions. In 1984, Health and Human Services secretary Margaret Heckler famously predicted that we would have an AIDS vaccine within two years. History has proven her very wrong, although there have been advances in the treatment of AIDS. In a like manner, many people on the left of the political spectrum have pointed to congressional budget cuts in medical research and funding as the reason we don’t have an Ebola vaccine. Maybe, but then again, maybe not.

7. Misunderstood transmission of disease to healthcare workers. Part of the reason for the current panic is the uncertainty that surrounds the question of how exactly the two nurses with diagnosed Ebola caught it from Thomas Duncan, the Ebola patient who died in Texas. This in many ways mirrors the panic that ensued when a very few hospital workers got HIV from inadvertent needle pricks. Healthcare workers who attend Ebola patients are definitely at a higher risk of catching the disease. Protection and training is of the utmost importance. But their illness does not mean that most Americans are under dire and direct threat of catching Ebola. Some actual contact with the bodily fluids of an infected person is necessary for Ebola (and AIDS) to be transmitted.

8. Need for international response. In the early days of AIDS, most people considered the disease a homosexual problem. Today, a similar heartlessness and marginalization of those who are affected is going on. “Many people are [acting like] that’s just an African problem,” former CDC acting director Richard Becker told New York Daily News this week. “[As if] this is a problem that we don’t have to jump on board. It’s something that someone else will take care of.” 

But that is especially not the case when it comes to infectious diseases, and it is a grave mistake to think so. A disease is a disease, and without international cooperation in containing and solving the problem, the unwarranted panic in the U.S. today may be altogether warranted in the future.

One good thing that AIDS and Ebola share is the incredible bravery and heroism of frontline healthcare workers. It would do all of us good to honor their fortitude and generosity of spirit.

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