Lessons from 40 Years of AIDS, ‘The Other Pandemic,’ Must Guide Global Response to COVID-19

In Featured, Global, News by Ged Kenslea

In 2019, 38 million people were living with HIV/AIDS worldwide; 1.7 million people acquired HIV and 690K people died from AIDS

Since late 2019, the world has had a reported 172 million COVID-19 cases with 3.7 million deaths attributed to COVID

WASHINGTON (June 4, 2021) AHF, the world’s largest provider of HIV/AIDS care globally, calls on world and public health leaders to apply lessons learned from HIV/AIDS—‘the other pandemic’—to the ongoing global response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Forty years of painful lessons from AIDS offer applicable lessons for our global fight against COVID-19, lessons that should not be ignored,” said Michael Weinstein, president of AHF. “For years we have needed to radically overhaul and change the architecture of our global public health system and its structures. Now, the unimaginable devastation brought about by the coronavirus over the past year-and-a-half coupled what we have learned from and about AIDS over the past decades provide impetus for world and global health leaders, NGOs and others to ensure we do not make the same deadly mistakes with COVID-19 as we did with AIDS.”

Since the initial reports of what eventually became known as AIDS in the June 5, 1981 ‘Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report,’ the disease has killed more than 32 million people worldwide. Thankfully, the 1996 introduction of lifesaving combined drug antiretroviral therapies (ART)—the so-called ‘AIDS drug cocktail’ saved countless millions from death. However, HIV/AIDS remains a deadly global health issue, taking the lives of nearly 700,000 people annually around the world.

Some lessons from the AIDS pandemic applied readily to COVID 19. In December 2020, the Wall Street Journal published an article headlined “How HIV Research Laid the Foundation for COVID Vaccines.”  Reporters Gregory Zuckerman and Betsy McKay documented how scientific techniques developed in the ongoing fight against AIDS—for which there are effective treatments, but NO vaccine or cure—helped scientists combat the new coronavirus so swiftly, aiding them in developing effective COVID-19 vaccines in less than one year. The reporters noted: “Fittingly, some scientists say that current work on combating Covid-19 may, in turn, finally produce an HIV vaccine.”

Other lessons from AIDS that are applicable to COVID-19 include:

  • The need for reliable, transparent, accurate statistics to track the path of the pandemic globally and better treat—and vaccinate people against—COVID-19. Good numbers allow governments and NGOs to direct limited resources
  • The need to combat stigma so that people will seek services and treatment and providers will care for all fairly and equally
  • The need to be nimble to adapt to the changing pandemic, to shift gears and resources quickly to where need may be greatest to contain potential hot spots from becoming catastrophic

HIV/AIDS Global Stats

Globally, around 38 million people were living with HIV/AIDS in 2019. About 1.7 million people acquired HIV that year and over 690,000 people died from AIDS-related illnesses in 2019[1].


COVID-19 Global Stats

As of June 3rd, about 172 million COVID-19 cases worldwide with over 3.7 million people dead. In India and Brazil, new COVID-19 cases are completely exceeding the capacity of healthcare systems. There is a crushing need for more vaccines, particularly in the developing world. However, as of April, 890 million vaccine doses had been administered worldwide – 81% were given in wealthy countries – and low-income countries received only 0.3%, according to the World Health Organization.

Finally, the Los Angeles Times reported yesterday on the growing—and worrying—intersection of HIV/AIDS and COVID-19. In an article headlined As COVID-19 collides with HIV/AIDS, the pandemic may be taking an ominous turn” (6/3/21), reporter Melissa Healy noted The new findings raise the specter that HIV/AIDS — a 40-year-old scourge that has killed 32 million worldwide — could complicate efforts to eradicate a COVID-19 pandemic that has killed more than 3.5 million in less than a year and a half.”

“We must apply our HIV lessons to COVID-19,” added Weinstein. “The overlap of COVID-19 and HIV/AIDS suggests we still have much work to do on AIDS, ‘the other pandemic,’ work that just might help those living with HIV and help shorten the length and severity of the COVID-19 pandemic.”


[1] Source: HIV.gov. (2020). Global Statistics. The Global HIV/AIDS Epidemic. Available online: https://www.hiv.gov/hiv-basics/overview/data-and-trends/global-statistics


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