That disease was known as AIDS, and the lessons learned in the fight to control it came at a high cost. And, it seems today’s COVID-19 fight is tossing everything people have learned from AIDS and ignoring it all.
Dr. Gary Slutkin, an infectious disease doctor and epidemiologist, has been battling epidemics for about 50 years. When the AIDS epidemic was at its highest, the World Health Organization sent him to work in Uganda, where 30 percent of people were infected, and the disease was 100 percent fatal. The people were dying, and the disease kept spreading.
Similar to COVID-19, AIDS was a new, little known virus with no treatment or cure. The more researchers studied it, the more was learned. Mistakes were made in the effort to save people’s lives. Eventually, things took shape and scientists learned what worked. By the time, Slutkin and his team left the country; new transmission rates dropped by 85 percent.
The one weapon that has worked that is being ignored now is open, honest communication.
Even when AIDS came to Uganda, most residents didn’t understand how it was transmitted and how to prevent the infection, regardless of how it was given to them. The most difficult behavior to change was sexual behavior, as it often included misinformation and finger-pointing – much like one sees today with COVID-19.
The only solution to address the crisis was to continually deliver the message on a community level by those trusted in the community about the disease and how it is and is not transmitted along with support to make the necessary changes. With a bit of time, the people learned and shared the information with each other, saving millions of lives.
Today, the world is dealing with another crisis – the novel coronavirus. It’s a disease with no cure or vaccine or real treatment. While people do not want to do, things are not working out like they could.
Similar to the Uganda AIDS scenario, misinformation is running rampant and how to prevent the spread and transmission is something society doesn’t fully understand. They may not even trust the information they have.
There is a lot of confusing messages out there, which is why the world is where it is now. With the country opening up, there is a great risk for fatalities from the disease. As a population, there is a lack of understanding about the virus and its transmission for proper social policies to be established.
It’s an individual’s personal behavior that keeps the virus from infecting the whole country. COVID-19 behavior is affected by fear, anger, blame and noise. The only way to stop the disease from its spread is to get everybody to understand why a mask is necessary (not a political statement) and that keeping your distance from others is not giving up freedoms. By putting attention on the basics, everything else can fall into place.
It’s important to give people the truth about the virus, reaching out to them on an individual level if the COVID-19 crisis is going to become under control. The WHO and CDC guidelines have the responsibility to ensure people have the information. After all, the complacency with AIDS led to millions of deaths, leading to even worse transmission in society.
The goal to beat COVID-19 shouldn’t be to open back up but to stop the transmission. And, like the AIDS epidemic, communication of proper, factual information is the only way this can be done.
Written by Mark Riegel, MD
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