Before the next pandemic: Lessons learned, and those still to be absorbed

Medical student James E.K. Hildreth was on his first clinical rotation when he saw the patient, a Black woman in her early 20s who had just given birth. It was the early 1980s and AIDS was spreading, with no treatment for the virus. Both the mother and her baby did not make it.

“There was nothing we could do except treat their symptoms and watch them die,” Dr. Hildreth says quietly. The experience so affected him he changed his specialty from training to be a transplant surgeon to an HIV investigator. He became one of the world’s top HIV/AIDS researchers, with much of his work focusing on blocking HIV infection by learning how it gets into cells.

Now, as president and CEO of Meharry Medical College in Nashville, one of the nation’s oldest and largest historically Black academic health science centers, he sees similarities between the AIDS era and the COVID-19 pandemic responses – initial reluctance by some government officials to acknowledge the gravity of the virus and its impact on people of color – and says they must not be repeated.

Dr. James E.K. Hildreth, president and CEO of Meharry Medical College in Nashville. (Photo courtesy of Meharry Medical College)

“There’s a lot that we learned,” Dr. Hildreth says. “But one thing we learned for sure is that we need to do a better job of diversifying our health care work force. We need to spend more money on public health and preventive medicine to prevent this from happening again. And it also illustrates the importance of improving the basic health status of all of us, so that the next time this happens, we won’t be having the same conversation again. This is not the last pandemic for sure.”

Meharry is among the academic institutions and nonprofit organizations that are grantees of Microsoft AI for Health, which uses artificial intelligence (AI) and Azure high-performance computing to help improve the

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