COVID-19 vs HIV: How the Epidemics Compare

How much does the current virus crisis share in common with early HIV outbreak scare?

The term “unprecedented” may be exhausted in descriptions of the coronavirus 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic—but it’s a natural response to how the virus has influenced the livelihood, state of mind, and priority of fear in the world’s population.

For so many, never before has a disease been so little understood and so greatly feared.

For others, there is a precedent event: the HIV epidemic.

In the final segment of an interview with Contagion during International AIDS Society (IAS) AIDS 2020 Virtual Sessions this week, Cathy Creticos, MD, Director of Infectious Disease at Howard Brown Health, discussed the similarities and disparities of the COVID-19 pandemic and the HIV epidemic of the 1980s and early ‘90s.

For one thing, Creticos said, the swinging-pendulum nature of public response to developing news has been nearly identical—as has been the politicization of either disease.

“Here we are in 2020 with this disease that kills people, that we don’t have any treatments for, that we really don’t understand the full manifestation and presentation biology of the virus,” Creticos said. “We’re really dealing in the same situation as in the HIV epidemic.”

But the means by which medical, legislative, and public agencies have united in their efforts to address COVID-19 was sorely missing during the height of HIV fear.

“I wonder if we had this type of effort at the beginning of the HIV epidemic, if we’d have solve this problem by now,” she said. “I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that COVID affects everybody, but HIV was certainly perceived as not affecting everybody.”