On November 12, 2020, the Center for the History of Medicine hosted its 19th Annual Horace W. Davenport Lecture in the Medical Humanities.
This year’s lecture featured Dr. Powel Kazanjian, Professor and Chief of Infectious Diseases at the University of Michigan Medical School. Dr. Kazanjian is also Professor of History at the University of Michigan, where he teaches on the history of epidemics and the history of sexually transmitted diseases. He has written extensively about the history of AIDS, syphilis, commercial botulism, plague, and the development of bacteriology in America.
Dr. Kazanjian delivered his lecture, “The Persistence of Contagious Diseases.” By the later 20th century, it had become common for public health officials and lay writers to envision a future in which epidemic diseases had been eliminated. The appearance of the new deadly disease that would eventually be known as AIDS in 1981, however, challenged their confident vision. The potent antiretroviral therapies (ART) introduced in 1996 enabled individuals receiving treatment to survive a full lifespan. By 2014, a global UNAIDS campaign sought to “end AIDS as a global health threat” by 2030” by maximizing the distribution of ART to infected people. The UNAIDS campaign is conceptually similar to earlier 20th century programs that sought to end syphilis by expanding specific therapy. The failure of these syphilis campaigns, together with the realization that today’s efforts to end AIDS is falling short of their 2020 milestones, however, raise uncertainties about whether the ongoing UNAIDs campaign will succeed. Socioeconomic and behavioral factors have hindered the biomedical campaigns to eliminate syphilis and AIDS. To be effective, scientific public health campaigns must also address how to rectify the socioeconomic conditions and human behaviors that vex elimination efforts and lead to emerging epidemics like AIDS and Covid-19. Epidemic diseases, along with efforts launched to contain them, have been and continue to be an inescapable part of our existence.
If missed the lecture, it can be viewed below.