Ebola responders look to lessons from HIV
The Hill, DC
17/09/2014

By Sarah Ferris

As the Ebola crisis deepens in West Africa, health leaders are taking cues from the international response to another deadly virus that has ravaged the continent — HIV.

Chinua Akukwe, the lead African analyst with the National Academy of Public Administration, told lawmakersWednesday that the U.S. should look at its response to HIV/AIDS over the last decade when mapping out its plan to fight Ebola.

Akukwe said it “jumpstarted the global response to HIV” when the U.S. began pouring money into research and treatment in the early 2000s.

“It allowed multilateral agencies to begin the process of looking at HIV/AIDS from a different perspective. I think this is what we probably need at this time,” Akukwe told members of the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Africa and Global Health.

The HIV and Ebola outbreaks have struck different corners of the continent, but both hit quickly and powerfully, straining fragile governments and even more fragile health systems. Both diseases are difficult to treat and come with strong stigmas.

“It’s sort of an inevitable comparison,” said Jen Kates, the vice president and director of global health and HIV policy for the Kaiser Family Foundation. “It’s a common feeling when there’s an outbreak that no one was prepared or expecting it.”

Even some of the people fighting the diseases are the same faces as before.

Anthony Fauci, an infectious disease doctor who has been at the front of the National Institute of Heath’s response to Ebola, was also a lead architect of the Bush-era President’s Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief (PEPFAR).

Fauci, who has appeared in Congress twice over two days to brief lawmakers on Ebola, has also testified at multiple hearings on HIV/AIDS. He became director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in 1984, just three years after HIV was first identified.

But Kates, who has watched the Ebola epidemic closely over the last six months, said there are also key differences.

Most importantly, she said, is that West African health workers already know that the disease they’re fighting is called Ebola. She said HIV was an unknown disease for years. She added that health workers are better able to identify those infected with Ebola, because they present symptoms quickly.

She said if the international community devotes the resources that it’s promised to control the outbreak, it can prevent the type of decades-long campaign that’s been needed to combat HIV.

“I do think there’s a very small window to get ahead of it. If we do, I don’t think we’re looking at a PEPFAR,” she said.

Akukwe, the head of the African Working Group, also drew comparisons between the decimated West African health infrastructures and those of the countries that have been hit the hardest by HIV. He said international intervention has been imperative in both cases.

“It is not easy for Africans on their own to deal with this problem.” he said. “These are very poor African countries that will never have the capacity to manage some of these outbreaks.”