HIV-AIDS taught us not to police a disease outbreak, say experts. Did the lesson stick?

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The Canadian death toll from HIV — the human immunodeficiency virus that, in its most advanced stages, becomes AIDS — peaked at 1,764 in 1995, a year that ended with the hopeful news that a landmark drug had been approved.

By 1997, the death toll had dropped down to 525, the lowest since 1987, when the epidemic raged and stigma-filled headlines proclaimed the virus, which disproportionately impacts gay men, was “changing ways of addicts, hookers,” “becoming a disease for junkies” and, later, that “public’s fear of catching AIDS unrealistic reaction to publicity.”

May 2020. HIV, still very much a major public health issue, has lessened into a chronic condition and Canadians are, by and large, preoccupied with a new infectious disease threat: the novel coronavirus.

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On May 12, the Canadian COVID-19 death toll topped 5,000, two months — practically to the day — after the World Health Organization declared it a pandemic. And while the virus doesn’t carry the same stigma as HIV-AIDS, this particular 21st-century pandemic isn’t without similarities to that 20th-century epidemic.


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