by Stacy M. Brown, For New Pittsburgh Courier
(NNPA)—As COVID-19 continues to spread amid a growing number of fatalities, Dr. James Hildreth said it’s critical that everyone follows stay-at-home orders, social distancing guidelines, and anything else that could help keep Americans safe during the pandemic.
Dr. Hildreth, the president of Meharry Medical College, is not just your everyday physician, or media talking head. He’s a renowned infectious disease expert who has repeatedly been called upon by Nashville Mayor John Cooper and others to inform the public about coronavirus.
Dr. Hildreth began undergraduate studies at Harvard University and was selected as the first African American Rhodes Scholar from Arkansas in 1978.
He graduated from Harvard magna cum laude in chemistry in 1979, according to his biography.
That fall, Dr. Hildreth enrolled at Oxford University in England, graduating with a Ph.D. in immunology in 1982. At Oxford, he studied the biology of cytotoxic T cells with Professor Andrew McMichael and became an expert in monoclonal antibody technology and cell adhesion molecules. He returned to the United States to attend Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, taking a one-year leave of absence from medical school for a postdoctoral fellowship in pharmacology from 1983 to 1984.
In 1987 he obtained his M.D. from Johns Hopkins and joined the Hopkins faculty as an assistant professor. In 2002, Dr. Hildreth became the first African American in the 125-year history of Johns Hopkins School of Medicine to earn full professorship with tenure in the basic sciences.
In July 2005, Dr. Hildreth became director of the NIH-funded Center for AIDS Health Disparities Research at Meharry Medical College.
In an interview with NNPA Newswire, Dr. Hildreth stressed that “there has to be a new normal,” and he implored all to understand that they don’t “want to be a vector.”
“I think that vigilance has to be raised to a new level. The response to this situation by the [Trump] administration was late,” Dr. Hildreth stated.
“There needed to have been a coordinated response to this. A lot of what’s happening now could have been avoided had we had strong leadership from the beginning. We would be having a different conversation,” Dr. Hildreth added.
As America and most of the world hunker down, Dr. Hildreth said there must embrace a new normal.
“It’s possible that we identify people that are affected and treat them and go back to a somewhat normal life. But if you don’t have that, then it means that the social distancing aspects and the hygienic practices to avoid spreading the virus will have to continue,” Dr. Hildreth noted.
“On any given day, as many as 46,000 flights are carrying over 3 million people, and you have people from Florida, New York, and Miami and other places on there. If one person has the disease, then it starts all over again,” he said.
Dr. Hildreth also warned of a more cataclysmic situation arising if there’s no vigilance.
“And as human beings continue to push into habitats we have not been in before, and come into contact with pathogens we have not come into contact with before, I’m just saying that this may not be the last time we as a world have to respond to a pandemic like this,” he stated. “We could have a situation where billions die.”
Dr. Hildreth noted that that already this century, there’s been three pandemics – SARS, MERS, and COVID-19. He said that SARS and MERS occurred in 2002, and 2019, respectively, while COVID-19 entered the scene late in 2019.
“It’s almost at a frequency that every nine to 10 years we have to deal with this. And then, as the population grows and we have to encroach on more and more habitat that we have not been a part of before, there is an expectation that we will have to deal with emerging infections that we have not had to deal with before,” Dr. Hildreth said.
“Not all of them are necessarily going to become a global contagion, but some of them probably will.”
Viruses are incomplete life forms with no ability to replicate on their own, so they must find a way to gain entry into the cells in our bodies, explained Dr. Hildreth.
Many viruses need hosts before they can get into humans, and those hosts are called vectors, he said.
“In 2002, the hosts were cats. Then for MERS, the host was camels,” Dr. Hildreth stated. “So, efforts were made to eradicate the vectors. But what happens when the host is human? The difference with COVID-19 is that we are the vectors. It’s able to jump from human to human. So, our challenge is to eradicate the vector. That’s why we’re asking you to don’t become a vector of COVID-19. You don’t become a vector by staying at home, practicing social distancing, and sanitizing surfaces often,” he said.