The AIDS Epidemic — There’s No Hiding Place

By Sydney H. Schanberg
New York Newsday, January 27, 1987

Four years ago, officials at the Federal Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta were estimating the number of AIDS victims in the United States at about 1,000. Now the number is — very conservatively — over 25,000.

Of these, more than half have died. And, in the chilling but realistic language of the surgeon general’s recent report, “Since there is no cure, the others are expected to also eventually die from their disease.”

The surgeon general, Dr. C. Everett Koop, who is not known as an alarmist, said that by the end of 1991, a decade after acquired immune deficiency syndrome was first recognized in this country, an estimated 270,000 cases will have occurred here, and 179,000 of those victims will have died. And unless a cure is found between now and then, the others will all die, too.

Statistics can be dry and off-putting, like multiplication tables, but the statistics here are human beings who are falling everywhere in this land in what can only be called a national epidemic. 

And no longer can either the misinformed or the small-minded take comfort in a belief that they are safe because this terrible disease is confined to the high-risk groups in which it was first identified — homosexual men and drug abusers who inject themselves with dirty needles. A growing body of evidence shows that AIDS is now moving increasingly into the general population.

Again, the words of the surgeon general: “Although the initial discovery was in the homosexual community, AIDS is not a disease only of homosexuals. AIDS is found in heterosexual people as well. AIDS is not a black or white disease. AIDS is not just a male disease. AIDS is found in women; it is found in children. In the future, AIDS will probably increase and spread among people who are not homosexual or intravenous drug abusers in the same manner as other sexually transmitted diseases like syphilis and gonorrhea.”

Federal and local health officials have been cautioning us not to panic, which is good advice as far as it goes because hysteria is never constructive. But surely we have an emergency here.

The surgeon general’s figures alone justify emergency attitudes and policy — and many reliable medical researchers in the AIDS field believe the government statistics to be seriously underestimated.

For example, the surgeon general says that as of right now, 1.5 million Americans are infected with the AIDS virus. Others think the number could be double that.

This does not mean that all 1.5 million or 3 million are going to become terminally ill with AIDS; most of those infected have no symptoms as yet and many may never get sick. But it does mean that they risk spreading the disease because all of them are potentially infectious.

And, yes, 20 to 30 percent of them — according to the surgeon general — will in fact develop AIDS “within five years.” Using the conservative base figure of 1.5 million infected people, this translates into 300,000 to 450,000 AIDS victims. And the size of the infected group keeps growing month by month.

Even though there is no medicine yet to cure AIDS and no vaccine to precent it, there is much that can be done. A national educational effort — including the use of network television — is one necessary course. This could alert adult and sexually active young people alike, with a sense of urgency, to the many ways of reducing the risk of contracting AIDS. Abstinence, monogamous behavior, avoidance of sex with female or male prostitutes, the adoption of safe sexual practices, the use of condoms are all ways of reducing exposure and preventing AIDS.

This is very earthy stuff and many people, understandably, are concerned about bringing it to children, especially in the classroom. Education Secretary William Bennett says he would oppose AIDS education being offered to schoolchildren before the eighth or ninth grade.

Surgeon General Koop, on the other hand, feels the situation is critical enough to require AIDS information “at the lowest grade possible.” “The threat of AIDS,” he said, “should be sufficient to permit a sex education curriculum, with a heavy emphasis on prevention of AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases.”

He is not alone in his crisis viewpoint. Mathilde Krim, a respected research biologist who has worked on the AIDS problem, believes we have to put some of our niceties aside. “We have to educate everybody,” she says. “Our first priority must be to save lives.”

She also offers an observation that seems obvious under the circumstances but apparently isn’t so obvious in Washington: “The government has to push research, make it an emergency.”

It’s already an emergency in New York City. The health commissioner, Dr. Stephen Joseph, says 500,000 people in the city have the virus and that by 1991, using conservative projections, we will have recorded 40,000 cases and 30,000 deaths.

These are people, not statistics. 

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