There are important similarities but also very stark differences between the Ebola virus and HIV. Both are transmitted through contact with body fluids, neither has vaccine, both can be fatal if untreated, both are carried by host animals and then to humans, bushmeat has been implicated in both, both emerged in Africa. The last similarity has a number of conspiracy nuts postulating all kinds of crazy theories!
Both viruses are transmitted through contact with body fluids (blood, vaginal fluid, semen and sexual fluids) but Ebola also pass through urine, saliva, sweat, faeces and vomit. For both diseases, the fluids have to come into contact with broken skin or mucous membranes, such as the eyes, nose, or mouth, in order to infect another person.
People’s reaction, the government’s reaction, the international response to Ebola virus is the same as it was with Aids in the 1980s—quarantines and travel bans which do more harm by creating mass hysteria and lead to stigma and discrimination. In 1985 in the USA, a national poll showed that almost half of the population favoured quarantines for people with HIV. In 1987, people with HIV were banned from travelling to the USA this was only lifted in 2010.
Similar to the international response to Aids, world governments have been slow to respond. For example, the UNAids programme only began in 1995, even though HIV had been identified in the 1980s, real momentum in Aids campaigns only peaking in 2000.
Ebola acts quickly. This is very different to HIV which has a long latency period. Someone with HIV can be infected and not show symptoms for as long as 10 years; all the while they are able to transmit the disease. There is a much shorter latency period for Ebola — typically shorter than 21 days. Symptoms appear quickly, and a person needs to be actively exhibiting symptoms in order to spread the virus.
Ebola is more infectious than HIV; a patient who is very ill can have 10 billion viral particles in a fifth of teaspoon of blood far more than 50 000 to 100 000 particles seen in an untreated person with HIV. Even the skin of a person with Ebola can be crawling with the virus.
But one thing they may have in common which a Liberian doctor discovered is they could be potentially treated by the same drug. In attempt to help his patients, he gave them Lamivudine, an anti-retroviral drug, 13 of 15 patients who he gave the drug survived.
As for a vaccine, the World Health Organisation (WHO) announced plans on October 24 to produce millions of doses of two experimental Ebola vaccines by the end of 2015. But is this coming too late? And can vaccine for Ebola also provide solutions for an HIV vaccine?