Reflecting on four decades of AIDS
SCOR’s Dr. Bill Rooney discusses the parallels between the AIDS epidemic and the Covid-19 pandemic
As Covid-19 swept the globe in early 2020, very little was known about how contagious the virus was, how it was transmitted, and how it could be treated and prevented. Fear spread as quickly as the virus itself and the world came to a sudden standstill as infected patients were separated from their families and treated by medical teams who had very little information to guide their efforts.
For Dr. Bill Rooney, SCOR’s current VP Medical Director and a U.S.-based physician with four decades of experience, the scenario was all too familiar. It took him back to the early 80s, when he was just starting his medical career amid rising concern about the AIDS epidemic.
“Family members, friends and healthcare workers, including myself, began worrying about the contagiousness of this condition,” Dr. Rooney said during the SCOR Live Review. “I used protective equipment whenever I saw patients. I wore a mask and gown and washed my hands all the time, but I still worried about contracting the disease. Unfortunately, and sadly, behind all that protective equipment I felt isolated from the patient.”
Even working in a small farming town of 6000 people, several of his patients were diagnosed with AIDS. He remembers having little time to spend reassuring them and easing their fears as he navigated safety protocols and concerns of his own.
After the initial discovery of AIDS, the spread of the disease was quickly linked to sexual activity and recreational drug use, but the exact cause (now known to be HIV) and how else it could be spread was still unclear. What if he pricked his finger with a needle after administering an injection to an infected patient? What would happen if he somehow took this disease home to his wife and toddler sons? At one point his wife brought their boys to visit while he himself was recovering from a minor surgery. He knew that an AIDS patient had been treated in the same hospital room shortly before and when his sons started playing on the floor, he asked his wife to take them home. It simply wasn’t worth the risk.
And the uncertainty only grew as the number of diagnosed AIDS cases continued to rise in communities around the U.S. and around the world. Information was slow to emerge and without knowing exactly what was causing AIDS or how it was spread, it was impossible to understand how to prevent it. Treatment was reactionary, not preventative.
“It was difficult being a physician during those early days, offering supportive care and working hard to treat the complicating issues, but not being able to cure them,” Dr. Rooney said. “We couldn’t prevent their deaths.”
It took two years for the CDC to rule out the spread of the disease by casual contact, food, water, air, or contaminated surfaces. It was suggested that AIDS could be spread by saliva; by the time this was disproven several years later, the idea had already taken hold and continues to fuel misconceptions and stigma today.
“The Covid pandemic has brought back memories of the HIV epidemic because of the pain and suffering of the infected patients and their families,” Dr. Rooney said. Even with a long list of newly discovered disease outbreaks like SARS, MERS, and Zika virus during his career, he was entirely unprepared for a pandemic at the scale seen with Covid.
“But, think about this,” he added, “for AIDS it took three years to discover what virus was causing the ailment, it took four years to develop a diagnostic test, and it took six years to get an FDA approved medication. With Covid, it took months, not years.”
We’re moving in the right direction, Dr. Rooney said. We continue to learn more about existing diseases like AIDS, working to improve our medical understanding of the disease and find new treatment solutions. And we’re also making huge advances in our ability to mobilize resources and respond quickly and efficiently when new diseases are discovered.
The days when HIV was uninsurable are now long-gone thanks to effective treatment options and improvements in life expectancy. As early as the late 90s, SCOR was the first to offer insurance coverage to people who were HIV positive. Now, HIV is widely regarded as a controllable chronic disease which can be rated by measuring levels of white blood cells (CD4 count) and viral load, much like diabetics are rated based on their HbA1c levels. This has allowed insurers to offer a wide range of coverage options at more reasonable rates.
At SCOR, we continue to support AIDS research through our partnership with the Pierre and Marie Curie University in France. Over the last decade, this partnership has contributed to ongoing research for a vaccine against HIV and AIDS. According to Dr. Rooney, the quick development of a vaccine for Covid-19 is what gave us a foot up on the pandemic and remains the missing puzzle piece when it comes to preventing HIV and AIDS.
Effective treatments are now available, making it possible to live a longer, healthier life with HIV or AIDS. These treatments also play a huge role in preventing the spread of the disease, a critical next step in eradicating AIDS altogether. Unfortunately, these efforts are hindered by lingering misconceptions, fears, and stigmas that can prevent people from reaching out for help or seeking medical attention.
Today, in honor of Worlds AIDS Day, SCOR invites you to learn more about what causes the disease and the misconceptions that still surround it.
AIDS Fast Facts
- HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) is a virus that attacks important cells that fight disease and infection. If left untreated, HIV will weaken the immune system and make the patient more susceptible to other infections and illnesses, leading to AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome). ,
- HIV is not spread by casual contact or kissing. The virus does not live on surfaces and is not airborne. Instead, it most commonly spread during unprotected sex (sex without a condom or HIV medicine to prevent or treat HIV) or through sharing injection drug equipment like needles with an HIV positive person.
- There is currently no cure or vaccination for AIDS, but HIV can be controlled with proper medical care, making it possible to prevent the spread of the virus.
- HIV can be prevented by having safe sex, including using condoms. Those at high risk of contracting HIV can take medication to prevent HIV.