The legacy of AIDS shapes government's response to Ebola

Posted at 4:06 PM, Oct 17, 2014

Ebola has killed nearly 5,000 people and put America and the world on high alert. In contrast, the world’s worst pandemic, AIDS, hit the U.S. three decades ago and was largely ignored. Because of that, hundreds and then thousands fell sick and died of AIDS before the U.S. government even mentioned it publicly.

“The country had never had much of a discussion about homosexuality, they loathed us and feared us,” says long-time AIDS activist Peter Staley.

In those bleak years, activists organized, staged dramatic protests, and demanded new procedures at the Food and Drug Administration and the National Institutes of Health -- procedures that could help Ebola patients today.

“The openness to using experimental treatments and vaccines is a legacy of the AIDS epidemic and AIDS activists,” says Mark Harrington, director of the Treatment Action Group, an organization founded at the height of the crisis.

The lessons learned from AIDS are informing the world’s response to Ebola. But, says Harrington, it’s also clear there are lessons the world didn’t learn.

“We don’t really have a good rapid response system and these outbreaks are going to keep happening until we have better health systems in place in poor countries.”

On this week’s DecodeDC podcast, host Andrea Seabrook explores the legacy of the AIDS crisis, and its reverberations in the world’s response to Ebola.