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Let’s learn from our previous experience

It was first noticed in Los Angeles in June 1981.

Five otherwise healthy, white gay men were diagnosed with a rare lung infection. All five also had other uncommon infections, leading doctors to believe their immune systems were compromised. All five died.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published an article about the unusual situation in its “Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.” It was the first reporting done on the scourge that would come to be known as AIDS.

At the same time, a cluster of cases of a rare cancer, Kaposi’s sarcoma, appeared in a group of gay men in New York. According to hiv.gov, reports of rare illnesses among homosexuals became increasingly common across the country.

By December of that year, immunodeficiency conditions had been identified among infants in New York. More than half of them were children of women who were known to be drug abusers and/or sexually promiscuous.

A total of 337 cases of the yet-unnamed illness were identified that year; by Dec. 31, a total of 130 of those patients were already dead.

I was just a child at the time, and I didn’t even know about such early reports on this illness. But as my friends and I grew up and became teenagers, then young adults, the human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV-1, raged across the country. Spread via contact with bodily fluids, the virus was especially prevalent among certain populations — intravenous drug users, homosexuals and heterosexuals with multiple partners.

By April 1982, the CDC’s Dr. James Curran estimated that tens of thousands of Americans were already infected.

It was not long before understanding of the illness started to grow, and soon safer sex practices were being urged as a means of prevention. However, the public perception that it was only a disease of gay men allowed it to spread among other groups.

The actual virus was identified in 1983. The next year, scientists determined what surface receptor allowed the virus to attach to, or infect, a cell.

Then another milestone — 1984 was also the year that AIDS became an official pandemic.

As it became clear that the virus could be transmitted through sex between men and women and through blood transfusions, ordinary people in all sorts of communities began to fear it.

I can remember wondering if people in our local area had caught it. If so, could I catch it from kissing someone? What if I went swimming in a public pool or at a beach with someone who had it?

People didn’t like to talk about such things. It was challenging for parents to have frank conversations with their children about what dangers might be lurking among those other attractive young people and how to guard against them.

But those talks became necessary as the disease made its way throughout the country and around the globe

It took nearly a decade for us to learn enough about HIV-1 to begin to control it — not cure it, but control its ability to attack and replicate inside cells and sicken people.

We also started to understand how to control its spread, and one of the most widely available and effective tools for doing that was the condom. Other birth control methods had no ability to prevent the spread of AIDS, but condoms had a real impact.

I recall the slogans that floated around promoting their use. Messages such as “No glove, no love” and “Don’t be silly, wrap your willy” were cheeky reminders that using a condom during sex could save your life.

The CDC says: “When used the right way every time, condoms are highly effective in preventing HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). If condoms are paired with other option like PrEP or ART, they provide even more protection.”

The CDC also provides guidance on the correct use of condoms. You can read more about the topic at cdc.gov/hiv/risk/condoms.html.

Fast forward to 2020. AIDS is now a disease that people live with for decades. We have treatments for it and for the rare conditions it makes us susceptible to. We have drugs to reduce its spread.

We also have another pandemic.

The new coronavirus has killed 23 people in Belmont County, one in Harrison, two in Jefferson and 17 in Monroe in about five months. In Ohio, the death toll stood at 2,849 on Friday. In the United States, the CDC reported, deaths totaled 136,938 with nearly 3.5 million infections confirmed so far. Worldwide 592,573 lives have been lost, according to Johns Hopkins University.

And that is just since December.

It took four years for HIV-1 to become a pandemic. For COVID-19, it took merely a couple of months. We don’t have a vaccine to guard against COVID, and we are only scratching the surface of potential treatments for the most serious cases of coronavirus infections.

We are in a situation that is similar to that of the early ’80s, when a disease was running rampant through our population. But we know more about this illness. We know most people survive it, and we know that some carry and spread it without being aware they are infected.

We also know that there are ways to slow it down.

COVID-19 is a respiratory illness, and all the evidence we have indicates that it spreads through droplets that people exhale when they cough, sneeze, sing, talk or simply breathe. It appears that people can infect others in the days before they show symptoms, or even if they never show symptoms at all.

That means that we can avoid spreading the coronavirus by avoiding close contact with others.

We can reduce our trips away from home and only go out for necessities. We can make sure we sit or stand at least 6 feet apart when we are with other people outside our immediate families. We can wash our hands frequently and wipe down surfaces that might harbor the virus.

Finally, we can wear face coverings or masks.

By doing so, scientists say, people who are infected greatly reduce their ability to spread the virus to others. I have read estimates that the rate of new infections could be reduced between 65% and 80% if the majority of the population would routinely wear masks in public.

Several states and cities are ordering people to wear masks when they go out.

Some are reverting to earlier precautions that took a toll on the economy and closing bars, restaurants, recreation spots and areas where people gather because cases are surging again.

That is mainly because we have behaved carelessly since summer arrived.

We can change all of that.

Condoms worked against AIDS. Remember that and put on your mask.

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