TIME ebola

The Psychology Behind Our Collective Ebola Freak-Out

Airlines and the CDC Oppose Ebola Flight Bans
A protester stands outside the White House asking President Barack Obama to ban flights in effort to stop Ebola on Oct. 17, 2014 in Washington, DC. Olivier Douliery—dpa/Corbis

The almost-zero probability of acquiring Ebola in the U.S. often doesn’t register at a time of mass fear. It’s human nature

In Hazlehurst, Miss., parents pulled their children out of middle school last week after learning that the principal had recently visited southern Africa.

At Syracuse University, a Pulitzer Prize–winning photojournalist who had planned to speak about public health crises was banned from campus after working in Liberia.

An office building in Brecksville, Ohio, closed where almost 1,000 people work over fears that an employee had been exposed to Ebola.

A high school in Oregon canceled a visit from nine students from Africa — even though none of them hailed from countries containing the deadly disease.

All over the U.S., fear of contracting Ebola has prompted a collective, nationwide freak-out. Schools have emptied; businesses have temporarily shuttered; Americans who have merely traveled to Africa are being blackballed.

As the federal government works to contain the deadly disease’s spread under a newly appointed “Ebola czar,” and as others remain quarantined, the actual number of confirmed cases in the U.S. can still be counted on one hand: three. And they’ve all centered on the case of Thomas Eric Duncan, who died Oct. 8 in a Dallas hospital after traveling to Liberia; two nurses who treated him are the only other CDC-confirmed cases in the U.S.

The almost-zero probability of acquiring something like Ebola, given the virus’s very real and terrifying symptoms, often doesn’t register at a time of mass paranoia. Rationality disappears; irrational inclinations take over. It’s human nature, and we’ve been acting this way basically since we found out there were mysterious things out there that could kill us.

“There are documented cases of people misunderstanding and fearing infectious diseases going back through history,” says Andrew Noymer, an associate professor of public health at the University of California at Irvine. “Stigmatization is an old game.”

While there was widespread stigma surrounding diseases like the Black Death in Europe in the 1300s (which killed tens of millions) and more recently tuberculosis in the U.S. (patients’ family members often couldn’t get life-insurance policies, for example), our current overreaction seems more akin to collective responses in the last half of the 20th century to two other diseases: polio and HIV/AIDS.

Concern over polio in the 1950s led to widespread bans on children swimming in lakes and pools after it was discovered that they could catch the virus in the water. Thirty years later, the scare over HIV and AIDS led to many refusing to even get near those believed to have the disease. (Think of the hostile reaction from fellow players over Magic Johnson deciding to play in the 1992 NBA All-Star Game.)

Like the first cases of polio and HIV/AIDS, Ebola is something novel in the U.S. It is uncommon, unknown, its foreign origins alone often leading to fearful reactions. The fatality rate for those who do contract it is incredibly high, and the often gruesome symptoms — including bleeding from the eyes and possible bleeding from the ears, nose and rectum — provoke incredibly strong and often instinctual responses in attempts to avoid it or contain it.

“It hits all the risk-perception hot buttons,” says University of Oregon psychology professor Paul Slovic.

Humans essentially respond to risk in two ways: either through gut feeling or longer gestating, more reflective decisionmaking based on information and analysis. Before the era of Big Data, or data at all, we had to use our gut. Does that look like it’s going to kill us? Then stay away. Is that person ill? Well, probably best to avoid them.

“We didn’t have science and analysis to guide us,” Slovic says. “We just went with our gut feelings, and we survived.”

But even though we know today that things like the flu will likely kill tens of thousands of people this year, or that heart disease is the leading cause of death in the U.S. every year, we’re more likely to spend time worrying about the infinitesimal chances that we’re going to contract a disease that has only affected a handful of people, thanks in part to its frightening outcomes.

“When the consequences are perceived as dreadful, probability goes out the window,” Slovic says. “Our feelings aren’t moderated by the fact that it’s unlikely.”

Slovic compares it to the threat from terrorism, something that is also unlikely to kill us yet its consequences lead to massive amounts of government resources and calls for continued vigilance from the American people.

“Statistics are human beings with the tears dried off,” he says. “We often tend to react much less to the big picture.”

And that overreaction is often counterproductive. Gene Beresin, a Harvard Medical School psychiatry professor, says that fear is causing unnecessary reactions, oftentimes by parents and school officials, and a social rejection of those who in no way could have caught Ebola.

“It’s totally ridiculous to close these schools,” Beresin says. “It’s very difficult to catch. People need to step back, calm down and look at the actual facts, because we do have the capacity to use our rationality to prevent hysterical reactions.”

Read next: Nigeria Is Ebola-Free: Here’s What They Did Right

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: October 17

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

1. Bill Gates has some notes for Thomas Piketty: Tackle income inequality by taxing consumption, not capital.

By Bill Gates in Gates Notes

2. Thousands have died as Central African Republic slides toward civil war, but media coverage is scant. Is there an empathy gap?

By Jared Malsin in the Columbia Journalism Review

3. Europe’s apprentice model isn’t a perfect fit for U.S. manufacturing, but it could change the way we train a new generation of blue-collar workers.

By Tamar Jacoby in the New America Foundation Weekly Wonk

4. Ebola may be gruesome but it’s not the biggest threat to Africa.

By Fraser Nelson in the Guardian

5. In dry California, regulators are using an innovative pricing scheme to push conservation.

By Sarah Gardner at Marketplace

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME health

How Lessons From the AIDS Crisis Can Help Us Beat Ebola

Health officials counsel guests on the p
Health officials counsel guests on the prevention of HIV/AIDS transmission at the Argungu fishing festival in Kebbi State, northwestern Nigeria on March 13, 2008. Hundreds of fishermen from different parts of Nigeria and neighbouring West African countries have started arriving in Argungu fishing Town to participate in the fishing festival. AFP PHOTO / PIUS UTOMI EKPEI (Photo credit should read PIUS UTOMI EKPEI/AFP/Getty Images) PIUS UTOMI EKPEI—AFP/Getty Images

Ruth Katz is the director of the Health, Medicine and Society program at the Aspen Institute, a nonpartisan educational and policy studies institute based in Washington, D.C.

For too long, the history of infectious diseases has been that of ignoring a threat until it nears disaster

Without urgent action, Ebola could become “the world’s next AIDS,” said Thomas Frieden, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). HIV/AIDS has killed some 36 million people since the epidemic began, and another 35 million are living with the virus. Is history really about to repeat itself?

It doesn’t have to, if we have the wisdom to learn from past experiences. The tools we need immediately are swift international action, strong leadership, respect for science and broad-based compassion. But once we contain Ebola – and we will – we need new resource commitments and global health strategies to bring the next deadly epidemic under control much more quickly.

We’ve already done some things right. President Obama traveled to CDC headquarters in Atlanta, a rare presidential action, to detail an aggressive offensive against Ebola that includes sending troops and supplies to build health care facilities in Africa. Contrast that with the response to AIDS under President Reagan, who did not mention the epidemic publicly until 1987, six years after people started dying from it. This time around, we’re seeing leadership at the top.

Health officials have also put out a unified message about how Ebola can be transmitted – only through direct contact with bodily fluids. That, too, stands in welcome contrast with HIV, where irresponsible rumors quickly took hold and people worried about sharing toilets seats and touching doorknobs. The importance of educating health care workers and keeping them safe represents a commonality between Ebola and HIV, and must be among our highest priorities. Following the science is the only way we’re going to stop this thing.

Another lesson from HIV is that adequate resources can transform disease outcomes. The President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), a $15 billion, five-year commitment under President George W. Bush saved millions of lives around the world. But by contrast, even though the CDC is attacking Ebola with the largest global response in its history, the effort doesn’t come close to having the budget necessary to do all the field work needed to really beat back Ebola. Bipartisan funding support is crucial to enable public health officials to act aggressively.

One lesson that has not been well learned is that we stigmatize people at our own peril. During the AIDS epidemic, we saw an American teenager, Ryan White, expelled from school after he contracted HIV through a blood transfusion. In Dallas, where the first known Ebola victim in the U.S. has died, we hear reports that people of African origin have been turned away from restaurants and parents are pulling their children out of school. Cries to ban flights from Ebola-affected countries — an ineffective strategy reminiscent of the 22-year ban on the entry of HIV-positive people into the U.S. — are growing louder.

Experience tells us that when we are driven by fear, we tend to push infected people underground, further from the reach of the health-care system and perhaps closer to harming others. There was a time when many people assumed every gay man could spread AIDS; now some are suspicious that anyone from West Africa could harbor a deadly virus. Acting on ignorance is the best way to disrupt an optimal public health response.

We should look to other infectious diseases for lessons as well. After severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) surfaced in China in 2002 and spread to more than 30 countries in just a few months, an aggressive, well-coordinated global response averted a potential catastrophe. We saw how much could be done when political and cultural differences were set aside in favor of cooperation. SARS also spurred the World Health Organization (WHO) to update its International Health Regulations for the first time in 35 years, and prompted many countries to strengthen their surveillance and response infrastructure, including establishing new national public health agencies.

But glaring gaps remain in the health care and public health systems of many nations, despite years of warnings from almost anyone who has taken a careful look at them. With a population of 4 million, Liberia has only 250 doctors left in the country. That’s more than just Liberia’s problem, because if we can’t contain the Ebola epidemic there, we’re at much higher risk here. And within our own borders, we have a public health system that the Institute of Medicine termed “neglected” back in 2002. That assessment was largely unchanged a decade later when the IOM said that “public health is not funded commensurate with its mission” in the U.S.

The international community dragged its feet far too long on Ebola, and as a result, the virus still has the upper hand, outpacing the steps finally being taken to defeat it. Sierra Leone has just 304 beds for Ebola patients and needs almost 1,500 right now; by next week, it will need more. When it comes to control and prevention, speed is paramount. With the epidemic doubling every three weeks, the actions we take today will have a much greater impact than if we take those actions a month from now.

When we finally subdue this epidemic, we also need to shed our complacency towards the infectious diseases that plague us still, and the new ones likely to arrive with little warning. In a globalized world, they remain an immense threat. Almost 50,000 new HIV infections occur in the United States every year, as do 2 million worldwide. Influenza kills thousands of people annually, and more virulent strains can be much more dire. Yet we shrug most of this off, rarely paying attention until blaring headlines announce an impending cataclysm.

To get ahead of the curve, we need a renewed commitment to research and action, and enough resources to put more public health boots on the ground, both at home and abroad. Greater support for the Global Health Security Agenda, designed to close gaps in the world’s ability to quell infectious disease, should be a priority. The agenda, launched earlier this year, is a partnership involving the U.S. government, WHO, other international agencies and some 30 partner countries.

For too long, the history of infectious diseases has been that of ignoring a threat until it nears disaster, and then stepping in to prevent it from getting even worse. We can’t afford to keep repeating that pattern, and squandering blood and treasure in the process.

Ebola is a humanitarian crisis, but it does not belong to West Africa alone. We are all in this together.

 

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Ruth Katz is the director of the Health, Medicine and Society program at the Aspen Institute, a nonpartisan educational and policy studies institute based in Washington, DC. She served from 2009 to 2013 as Chief Public Health Counsel with the Committee on Energy and Commerce in the U.S. House of Representatives. Ms. Katz was the lead Democratic committee staff on the public health components of the health reform initiative passed by the House of Representatives in November 2009. Prior to her work with the Committee, Ms. Katz was the Walter G. Ross Professor of Health Policy of the School of Public Health and Health Services at The George Washington University. She served as the dean of the school from 2003 to 2008. This article also appears in the Aspen Journal of ideas.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Infectious Disease

Origins of AIDS Traced Back to Central African City of Kinshasa

Archived samples of HIV’s genetic code allow researchers to pinpoint its beginnings to the 1920s

HIV/AIDS originated in Kinshasa in 1920, long before it was officially recognized in the 1980s, according to a study published on Friday in the journal Science.

The authors of the study traced the origin of the disease to Kinshasa, which is now part of the Democratic Republic of Congo, using archived samples of HIV’s genetic code. HIV is a mutation of simian immunodeficiency virus, a virus found in chimpanzees, and the researchers think it probably entered the human species through infected blood from bush meat.

The report then attributes the spread of the disease to a rapid population expansion, a booming sex trade and unsterilized needles used in health clinics. “The second really interesting aspect is the transport networks that enabled people to move around a huge country,” Oliver Pybus, one of the authors of the study, told the BBC, which reports that over 1 million people were using Kinshasa’s railways by the end of 1940, allowing the disease to spread even more rapidly.

HIV first came to global attention around 1980, and has since affected over 75 million people.

TIME Infectious Disease

Half of HIV+ Gay Men Don’t Take Life-Saving Drugs

MOZAMBIQUE-BRAZIL-HEALTH-AIDS
A pack of Nevirapine 200mg tablets of antiretroviral (ARV) drugs is pictured at the Sociedade Mocambicana de Medicamentos (SMM) Africa's first public factory for anti-HIV drugs on July 21, 2012 in Matola, Mozambique. AFP/Getty Images

The latest survey from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) shows dramatic deficits in treatment among those at highest risk of HIV infection

Since the mid-1990s, powerful anti-HIV drugs have helped turn HIV-AIDS into a chronic condition as opposed to a death sentence. But in the latest report, published Thursday in the MMWR, health officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show that nearly half of people who could be benefiting from the medications aren’t taking them. Only 49.5% of gay and bisexual men diagnosed with HIV receive treatment, and only 42% of those taking medication have been able to keep virus levels in their body down to undetectable levels.

Especially concerning is the fact that the vast majority of men diagnosed with HIV will, in fact, see a doctor about treatment. The trouble is, many do not follow through with treatment and check-ups. The disparity between who gets treatment and who doesn’t grows even starker among young and African-American gay and bisexual men, says David Purcell, deputy director of behavioral and social science in the division of HIV-AIDS at the CDC.

The reasons why men don’t get—or stick with—treatment range from cost to misperceptions about the toxicity of current drug therapies to the enduring stigma of HIV. As such, Purcell says the CDC is shifting its prevention efforts away from safe sex and condom campaigns—although those are still important—to focus more on people who are living with HIV. “We’ve gone full bore on this, and shifted our HIV prevention strategies to reflect the increasing evidence of the dramatic impact that treatment can have on prevention,” he says. “It’s very high on our radar.”

If HIV positive people start anti-HIV drugs as soon after their diagnosis as possible, they can reduce the amount of virus in their blood to undetectable levels and lower their chances of passing on HIV to practically zero.

Last week, the CDC announced its “HIV Treatment Works” campaign, aimed at educating HIV-positive people about the best therapies for them, and the “Start Talking Stop HIV” effort targeting gay and bisexual men, to encourage them to ask partners about their HIV status and get tested regularly.

Preventing HIV is not about one “best” method, he says, but the fact that prevention strategies work best together — such as using condoms and getting tested regularly, or knowing your status and taking HIV medications faithfully.

TIME

‘My HIV Child Is Playing with Your Child, and You Don’t Know It’

One mom's essay about hiding her children's HIV status went viral after it was posted on the Scary Mommy blog.

In 1965, Kurt Vonnegut reminded us earthlings that there is only one rule for living on this planet: You’ve got to be kind. In God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, Vonnegut wrote: “Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies—God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”

It’s a rule that bears repeating, especially when stories like Jenn Mosher’s are making the rounds, reminding us all what an un-kind world we live in. Mosher wrote a brutally honest, powerful and thought-provoking essay at Scary Mommy about feeling that she must hide her children’s HIV positive status. The story went viral with 37,700 shares on Facebook and 637,725 likes. “My HIV child is playing with your child, and you don’t know it,” she bluntly wrote before going on to explain that her children have no sign of the disease in their blood, take medication every night and live the happy go-lucky lives of happy go-lucky children. But Mosher is worried that if her children’s HIV status is known, her community, friends, even school will shun her and her children.

When Mosher writes about fears of her children being stigmatized, it’s not the children on the playground she is worried about. Kids don’t know or care about such things, but their parents do. It’s the mothers and fathers who simply don’t understand that HIV isn’t a viral boogeyman lurking on toilet seats or playground swings. (In fact, it never was.) Now, as Mosher writes, HIV is a manageable illness that is not contagious through normal contact:

“Modern medications render the virus powerless. Every four months my child has her blood checked, and every time the results are the same: the sensitive lab tests detect no virus in her bloodstream. She is healthy, happy, and hilarious. I bandage her scraped knees; mop up bloody noses; share food, water, and kisses; and deal with boogies—all with no risk and no worries about contracting HIV.”

Parents who haven’t kept up on advances in HIV (and who has time, what with modern parenting being the all-hands-on-deck enterprise that it is?) may not know or understand that modern medicine has rendered HIV inert and Mosher’s essay addresses that. “Please, fellow mommies, know that HIV is nothing to be afraid of,” she writes and encourages parents with questions to seek answers from their own pediatricians. “Please look online, google it, and talk with your pediatrician. Learn and research so that you know the truth, too. You don’t have to take my word for it,” she wrote.

Still, Mosher has her own fears, but hers are not so much for her children’s physical health, but their mental and social well-being. “Fear that my children will be disinvited from birthday parties,” Mosher explained to Buzzfeed, “uninvited from gymnastics teams, kicked out of private school, and excluded and despised because of misinformation and baseless fear — as some others we know have been.”

Why would a school or a gymnastics team kick out a child with no sign of disease but a specter of a once-scary virus? Why would a parent disinvite a child to a birthday party over something they were born with? The combination of a lack of education and unfounded fear are a deadly cocktail, which can wreak far more damage on a child than an inert virus. But there’s something even more basic at play, too— the fact that many parents have forgotten one of the basic tenets of life on earth: kindness.

One silver lining of Mosher’s story is this: While internet comments are normally the antithesis of kindness, Mosher told Buzzfeed that she found thoughtful moms offering support, advice and even friendship. “They encouraged me, invited us on play dates, and made me realize that our tribe is definitely out there,” she told Buzzfeed. “They made my husband and I want to be braver.”

Essays like Mosher’s are important, because they teach from a place of kindness. They strive to inform, not yell or name call. They make people want to listen and become informed. Her essay reminds us all how far we have come since the days when Ryan White was shunned from his school, forced to eat with disposable utensils, use separate bathrooms, and skip gym class. But the essay also reveals how far we as a society still have to go to learn to live together on this round and wet and crowded planet.

I try to teach my son to be kind and his school reinforces those lessons of inclusiveness. If one of his schoolmates is HIV positive, I hope he learns about the differences that make up this melting pot of a country. I hope he learns acceptance of those differences, whether skin color, weight, ability or boogeymen lurking in their bloodstream. And I hope most of all that he learns to be kind to everyone, no matter how different, while he learns how we are all very much the same.

TIME Infectious Disease

HIV Treatment Works, Says CDC

CDC

Encouraging people to seek treatment is key

With the input of more than 100 people living with HIV, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) launched a new ad campaign today called “HIV Treatment Works.” The message: If you’re HIV positive, get treatment early and stick with it.

Many people don’t immediately start or stay on medication for a variety of reasons, including the cost of the drugs, poor access to health care, a lack of knowledge about effective treatments, and stigma about the disease, says Dr. Nick DeLuca, Chief of the Prevention Communication Branch in the Division of HIV/AIDS Prevention at CDC. Of the 1.1 million Americans living with HIV, only 1 in 4 have an undetectable viral load, the CDC says, which means that the viral levels in their blood are suppressed and are unlikely to be transmitted to other people. At least some of that rate, the CDC says, is due to a lack of adherence to medication.

Though antiretroviral therapy requires daily medication and frequent doctor visits and blood draws, it’s highly effective. “We know that if we get individuals living with HIV on treatment early, it’s the best thing to improve their individual health,” DeLuca says. People who start and continue treatment are 96% less likely to transmit it to others, and they’re less likely to get sick themselves because of improved immune function.

About 50,000 Americans per year contract HIV, a rate that’s remained steady since the mid-1990s. Of the new infections, 44% are African-Americans; black males are especially at risk. About a quarter of all new infections happened in people between ages 13-24.

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: August 28

1. New Orleans is at the heart of a new HIV epidemic, and only massive health system reform can remedy the situation.

By Jessica Wapner in Aeon

2. From dismantling Syria’s chemical arsenal to hunting down Joseph Kony, America’s military missions abroad far outlast the public’s attention span.

By Kate Brannen in Foreign Policy

3. To look beyond stereotypes and understand the programs and interventions that improve life for young men of color, the U.S. Department of Education invited them to a “Data Jam.”

By Charley Locke in EdSurge

4. Taking a page from silicon valley, incubators for restaurateurs can help get new ideas on the plate.

By Allison Aubrey at National Public Radio

5. So the homeless can work, worship, and transition to normal life, cities should offer safe, flexible storage options.

By Kriston Capps in Citylab

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: July 22

1. Caught between a war and life in a state of endless siege, Palestinians see no choice but to support Hamas.

By Noam Sheizaf in +972

2. Unfortunately, a deal with Russia is the only way to defuse the crisis in Ukraine.

By Iain Martin in the Telegraph

3. To beat the fundraising obsession that paralyzes Washington, disclose donation data less often.

By Lindsay Mark Lewis at the Atlantic

4. The research is clear: Our best strategy to fight the spread of HIV is decriminalizing sex work.

By Caelainn Hogan in the Washington Post

5. More than a sideline, corruption is a system for powerful actors to capture revenue and overshadow the operation of a state. And it is a major threat to international security.

By Sarah Chayes at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME HIV

Researchers Find New Way to Kick Out HIV From Infected Cells

Scanning electron micrograph of HIV-1
Scanning electron micrograph of HIV-1 Getty Images

The technique addresses the problem of hidden reservoirs of HIV in the body, and could herald a new way of battling the viral infection

Once HIV invades the body, it doesn’t want to leave. Every strategy that scientists have developed or are developing so far to fight the virus – from powerful anti-HIV drugs to promising vaccines that target it – suffers from the same weakness. None can ferret out every last virus in the body, and HIV has a tendency to hide out, remaining inert for years, until it flares up again to cause disease.

None, that is, until now. Kamel Khalili, director of the Comprehensive NeuroAIDS Center at Temple University School of Medicine, and his colleagues took advantage of a new gene editing technique to splice the virus out of the cells they infected – essentially returning them to their pre-infection state. The strategy relies on detecting and binding HIV-related genetic material, and therefore represents the first anti-HIV platform that could find even the dormant virus sequestered in immune cells.

MORE: Treatment as Prevention: How the New Way to Control HIV Came to Be

Even more encouraging, they also used the system to arm healthy cells from getting infected in the first place, by building genetic blockades that bounced off HIV’s genetic material. “It’s what we call a sterilizing cure,” says Khalili.

His work was done on human cells infected with HIV in cell culture, but, he believes the results are robust enough to move into animal trials and eventually into testing the idea in human patients.

The key to the strategy is the gene editing technique known as CRISPR, a way of precisely cutting DNA at pre-specified locations. CRISPR acts as a customizable pair of molecular scissors that can be programmed to find certain sequences of DNA and then, using an enzyme, make cuts at those locations. Because HIV is a retrovirus, its genetic material comes in the form of RNA; the virus co-opts a host cell’s genetic machinery to transform that RNA into DNA, which it then inserts into the cell’s genome. HIV’s genes, which it needs to survive, then get churned out by the cell.

MORE: David Ho: The Man Who Could Beat AIDS

Khalili designed a CRISPR that recognized the beginning and end of HIV’s DNA contribution, and then watched as the enzyme snipped out HIV from the cell’s genome. “I’ve been working with HIV almost since day 1 [of the epidemic] and we have developed a number of molecules that can suppress transcription or diminish replication of the virus. But I have never seen this level or eradication,” he says. “When you remove the viral genes from the chromosomes, basically you convert the cells to their pre-infection state.”

The advantage of the system lies in the fact that CRISPR can recognize viral genes wherever they are – in infected cells that are actively dividing, and in infected cells in which the virus is dormant. Current drug-based strategies can only target cells that are actively dividing and releasing more HIV, which is why they often lead to periods of undetectable virus but then cause levels of HIV to rise again. That’s the case with the Mississippi baby, who was born HIV positive and given powerful anti-HIV drugs hours after birth and appeared to be functionally cured of HIV when the virus couldn’t be detected for nearly four years, but then returned.

MORE: Rethinking HIV: After Five Years of Debate, a New Push for Prevention

Khalili admits that more work needs to be done to validate the strategy, and ensure that it’s safe. But it’s the start, he says, of a potential strategy for eradicating the virus from infected individuals. That may involve excising the virus as well as bombarding it with anti-HIV drugs. “We can get into cells, eradicate the viral genome, and that’s it,” he says.

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