While there is heightened awareness among Americans of the threat of AIDS, an overwhelming majority rate their personal risk of developing the deadly disease as very low, a Los Angeles Times Poll has found.
The nationwide survey showed that those polled believe Americans are more frightened of the disease than they used to be. Respondents rated AIDS first when asked which topics in the news they had been following recently. More than 85% had heard or read about AIDS two or more times in the prior week, and 38% more than seven times.
However, when asked about their concern about "AIDS as a problem for your own personal health," 57% said they were very unconcerned or fairly unconcerned and 42% responded that they were very concerned or fairly concerned. Respondents placed it last when presented a list of important problems facing the country today.
Close to 90% of all respondents classified their personal risk of acquiring AIDS as very low. AIDS ranked a distant second to cancer on a list of seven feared diseases; 56% of the respondents said they were most afraid of getting cancer, 12% AIDS and 11% heart disease.
Those people who rated themselves most knowledgeable about AIDS feared it the least, while those who said they had less knowledge had more misconceptions about the disease and its spread. Twice as many people said they lacked knowledge of the disease than rated themselves as knowledgeable.
Particularly striking was the finding that in San Francisco, a city with a very high per capita incidence of the disease, individuals were significantly less concerned about AIDS as a personal health problem than the national total.
In the San Francisco area, 34% of respondents said they were concerned about AIDS as a personal health concern, compared to 57% of those in New York, 50% in Miami and 47% in Los Angeles, other communities with large numbers of AIDS victims.
In total, 56% of San Francisco respondents rated themselves as informed about the disease, compared to 44% in Los Angeles, 43% in New York and 35% in the country at large.
"Most Americans are not that upset about AIDS now, because they don't view it as a personal risk," said I. A. Lewis, director of the Times Poll. "For the most part, there is a measured, practical and temperate response, with a clear negative correlation between knowledge and fear of the disease."
Lewis interpreted the results as showing that most Americans believe they have control over their likelihood of exposure to the disease.
"If there had been a greater sense of personal risk, we probably would have seen more emotional responses," he said.
The telephone poll of 2,308 people, conducted Dec. 5 to 12, was designed to assess the relationship of knowledge, fear and risk of the disease, which has become an increasing public health problem. As of Monday, 15,581 AIDS cases and 8,002 deaths from the disease had been reported nationally, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control.
Further, by interviewing additional individuals in areas where AIDS is most common, the survey permitted comparisons of the disease's impact in different communities. Five metropolitan areas, Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, Miami and Newark, account for almost three-fifth's of the AIDS cases reported in the United States to date.
AIDS, or acquired immune deficiency syndrome, is caused by a virus that attacks the body's immune system, leaving the victim vulnerable to a variety of tumors and infectious diseases.
Individuals most likely to develop AIDS include sexually active male homosexuals or bisexual men, intravenous drug users and individuals, such as hemophiliacs, who have received multiple blood transfusions. Heterosexual spread of the disease occurs, but it is thought to be uncommon in the United States.
Most respondents knew that AIDS primarily affects male homosexuals and that heterosexuals who have multiple partners have a greater chance of getting the disease than those with a single partner. Most also knew that fewer than 2 million people in the United States are thought to have been exposed to the AIDS virus. Forty-three percent predicted that the disease would affect more heterosexuals in future years.
On the other hand, many of those interviewed had misconceptions about the spread of the disease: 24% said people could catch AIDS from a toilet seat, 19% from eating food that had been handled by a disease victim, 14% from trying on clothes in a department store and 10% from handling money. Those with less education or knowledge about the disease had more misconceptions.
Public health experts say AIDS is transmitted only by intimate sexual contact with an individual who carries the virus or by exposure to the blood of a carrier. The disease is not thought to be spread through the environment or by casual contact.