What the AIDS Epidemic Can Teach Us About How to Handle Opioid Addiction


Pick up any newspaper and you’re likely to see stories about the opioid addiction epidemic that’s ravaging all areas of this country. While these news stories are talking about the opioid crisis in the United States, similar words could have easily been used to describe the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s and early 1990s.

There are striking similarities between these two public heath crises, and lessons learned from the time when we didn’t know how to handle AIDS can help us to avoid making the same mistakes today. In this article, we’ll examine what the AIDS epidemic can teach us about how to deal with the current opioid epidemic.

The Shame and Stigma of Opioid Addiction

One of the most glaring similarities between the AIDS epidemic and the opioid epidemic is the deep and widespread stigma that shrouds both health crises. There’s a habit of blaming the people affected. In the 1980s, the general consensus was that people who contracted AIDS brought it on themselves through the activities they engaged in; today, the same sentiment often holds true for opioid addiction.

During the peak of AIDS incidences in America, people often viewed the crisis from their own personal bubble, seeing the disease as something that happens to “other people.” Opioid addiction, which has had devastating effects throughout all areas of the country, is often regarded with the same indifference by people whose communities or personal lives haven’t yet been ravaged by the disease.

Lives Worth Saving

Another parallel between the AIDS epidemic and the current opioid addiction crisis is the attitude of the medical community toward these diseases. Physicians who treated AIDS patients at the height of the crisis recall surgeons who wouldn’t operate on people with the disease because they weren’t expected to live long.

opioid addiction

Similarly, communities that have been hit hard by opioid addiction are evaluating the rising costs of treating drug overdose victims. Some officials have even proposed inhumane “three strikes” policies in their areas, where first responders would not administer the life-saving drug naloxone to overdose victims who had a history of multiple overdoses.

Looking Ahead

During the darkest days of the AIDS epidemic, an HIV diagnosis was a death sentence. Today, the face of HIV is quite different—a person living with HIV can manage their disease with medication and enjoy a healthy, rewarding life.

Opioid addiction and overdose rates show no signs of slowing down. Drug overdose, which is primarily fueled by opioid addiction, is currently the leading cause of death for people under 50 years old in the United States. With over 64,000 people dying from drug overdoses each year, this epidemic is killing people faster than AIDS did at its peak.

Some are viewing the opioid crisis in America is the “new AIDS,” and there’s more than a grain of truth to that opinion. It’s important to look back on history with a critical eye and learn from our mistakes.

Improved access to naloxone and evidence-based treatment can help to control the spread of opioid addiction, and efforts to change public perception can gradually remove the stigma associated with this condition.