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World AIDS Day: U of I College of Medicine dean reflects on career during AIDS epidemic


ROCKFORD (WREX) — The Coronavirus pandemic isn't the only global health crisis the world has experienced in recent decades. In the 1980s, the world witnessed the height of the AIDS epidemic.

Dr. Alex Stagnaro-Green, Regional Dean at the University of Illinois College of Medicine-Rockford, said he remembers seeing his first two AIDS patients in 1981 at Mount Sinai Health System in New York City.

"I remember so clearly it was two patients in the ICU," he said. "The ICU only had 8 beds and they both had Pneumocystis and no matter what treatments we gave, they both deteriorated that night and died in the morning. That was my first very difficult introduction to AIDS."

Dr. Stagnaro-Green said the most difficult time during the epidemic was before doctors knew how patients contracted HIV, which is through blood and bodily fluids.

"The worst part about it was that there was no treatment and that for every person who came in and had the cluster of symptoms consistent with AIDS, remember then, we didn't have a test for HIV. We knew that that person was not going to survive a couple of years and normally you passed away within the year with a very difficult death," Dr. Stagnaro-Green said.

As an educator now in the medical field, Dr. Stagnaro-Green said he talks with his students at the U of I College of Medicine-Rockford as they begin their careers in another health crisis—the COVID-19 pandemic. He said he wants his students to realize what a different world medicine is in 2020, compared to 1981.

While the United States is on the verge of distributing a vaccine for COVID-19, the first treatment for AIDS wasn't approved until 1987, 6 years after the first case of AIDS was discovered.

Looking forward to the future, Dr. Stagnaro-Green said the medical community has learned a lot from COVID-19, AIDS and other infectious diseases, like MRSA, SARS and Legionnaire's Disease.

"It just I think makes us humble to the fact that this will be an ongoing battle with nature and society to address the new types of challenges that we can't even think about," he said.

Global organizations created to end AIDS worldwide hope to end new infections by 2030. About 38 million people live with AIDS and 1 in 5 people worldwide don't even know they have it.

Breane Lyga

Breane Lyga is the content manager at 13 WREX. She joined the team in 2015 as the 5, 6 and 10PM news producer after graduating from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. She was 13 WREX’s assignment editor from 2017 to 2018.

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