Celebrity Viruses

Thin-section transmission electron micrograph of HIV. courtesy of CDC's Dr. A. Harrison; Dr. P. Feorino

Transmission electron micrograph of HIV, courtesy of CDC.

Today the Institute of Medicine released its report on improving recognition of and care for chronic hepatitis B and C infections.  In the report the IOM highlighted the lack of knowledge about hepatitis B and C among the general public but also among physicians, other healthcare providers, and social service providers. (see story)

In particular, the IOM recommended mounting a public awareness campaign similar to the successful HIV/AIDS campaign.  That begs the question of why HIV/AIDS has engendered such attention while hepatitis B and C have not.  Why has HIV been a sort of celebrity virus?  It’s estimated that 3-5 times as many people live with chronic hepatitis B and C than with HIV/AIDS. Yet in general, even physicians are poorly educated about these diseases.

Why?  Is it because HIV/AIDS posed an imminent threat to the health of an individual (i.e. death) when it was initially identified and before effective treatment regimens were available, ?  Is it because those with hepatitis B and C are often asymptomatic?  Is it because there are no celebrities with hepatitis B and C?  Is it because HIV/AIDS organizations are better organized and less fragmented?

The pervasive lack of knowledge about hepatitis B is particularly troubling, given that there is a very effective vaccine to prevent infection.  However, you can’t really get the vaccine if your physician doesn’t know about it.

Let us know what you think.  What’s behind the disparity?

—Kerri Wachter ( @knwachter on Twitter)

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Filed under Infectious Diseases, Primary care

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