Could Ebola Really Be the 'Next AIDS'?

Ebola Virus Image
A scanning electron micrograph of the Ebola virus. (Image credit: Cynthia Goldsmith | CDC)

The Ebola outbreak has been escalating in the past few months, but could it cause a global pandemic similar to that of AIDS, as was suggested today by a top public health official?

Speaking at a meeting in Washington, D.C., today (Oct. 9), Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, compared the two diseases. "In the 30 years I've been working in public health, the only thing like this has been AIDS," Frieden said, referring to the Ebola outbreak. "And we have to work now so that this is not the world's next AIDS."

Ebola and HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, have a number of similarities. Both are spread through blood and bodily fluids, both have high fatality rates, both emerged out of Africa and researchers have not developed a vaccine against either virus, said Dr. Amesh Adalja, an infectious-disease physician at the University of Pittsburgh. [5 Most Likely Real-Life Contagions]

But there are also major differences between the two viruses that would prevent Ebola infections from becoming as widespread as AIDS, experts say.

HIV has a long latency period during which people are able to spread the virus — for example, through sexual activity or sharing hypodermic needles — but do not yet have any symptoms of the disease, Adalja said. In contrast, the Ebola virus does not spread from people who do not yet have symptoms, and once people do get sick, they feel too ill to go about their usual activities, Adalja said.

The fact that Ebola does not have a latency period "will be one of the limiting factors of its spread," Adalja said.

Dr. Bruce Hirsch, an infectious-disease specialist at North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset, New York, agreed. "I do not think that Ebola has the potential to be the world's next AIDS," Hirsch said.

Unfortunately, Ebola is a quick killer, but this means the outbreak will eventually burn itself out, Hirsch said. "That's both its terror and also the advantage we have, in terms of public health measures to control the virus," Hirsch said.

Still, the Ebola outbreak is similar to AIDS in the lessons it holds, he said. "I do think that Ebola has the potential to teach us the same message that AIDS has taught us," which is that the health of humans around the world is connected, Hirsch said.

"If anyone is deprived of appropriate health care … everybody on the planet is going to pay the price for that," Hirsch said. "We need to think about our health globally."

The Ebola outbreak had sickened more than 8,000 people in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, and killed more than 3,800 people as of Oct. 5, when the numbers were last updated, according to the CDC. The United States recently had its first case of Ebola (a man named Thomas Eric Duncan, who died this week), and Spain also has a case of Ebola.

The projected worst-case scenario is that 1.4 million people in Liberia and Sierra Leone could be infected with Ebola in four months, according to a recent report from the CDC.

It is essential to prevent a worst-case scenario in these countries, Hirsch said, not only because the death toll would be a human tragedy, but also because the outbreak puts people around the world at risk. "We are not safe from Ebola until everyone is safe from Ebola," Hirsch said.

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Rachael Rettner

Rachael is a Live Science contributor, and was a former channel editor and senior writer for Live Science between 2010 and 2022. She has a master's degree in journalism from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. She also holds a B.S. in molecular biology and an M.S. in biology from the University of California, San Diego. Her work has appeared in Scienceline, The Washington Post and Scientific American.