WASHINGTON — Federal health officials, seeking a non-controversial way to release government funds for sex education campaigns on how to avoid AIDS, have proposed creation of local "review panels" as a way to avoid a feared public backlash over the dissemination of potentially explicit materials, The Times has learned.
The Centers for Disease Control will require all applicants for federal AIDS education grants to establish local review boards "representing a reasonable cross section of the general community" and "not drawn predominantly from the target groups . . . to whom the materials are directed" to examine and approve all materials before the money will be awarded, according to a CDC memorandum.
A CDC official confirmed Sunday that the agency was in the process of freeing the money under the new guidelines.
'Bounds of Taste'
"This is an attempt to fund these things and assure they do not go beyond the bounds of the community's tastes," CDC spokesman Donald Berreth said.
The agency advised in its memo that materials on sex practices should use language necessary for the "target audience to understand the messages."
However, the memo continued, such language should also "be understood by a broad cross section of educated adults in society" and, when directed at a specific group, "such as homosexual men," should be "unoffensive to most educated adults beyond that group."
The CDC--worried that it would be accused of "funding pornography"--had placed eight requests for federal grants, including one from Aids Project/Los Angeles, on hold several months ago until the agency could decide "what level of explicitness . . . is acceptable for U.S. Public Health Service-funded projects."
The requests for funding had totaled more than $1.6 million. The federal controversy mirrored disputes that had occurred in several cities, including Los Angeles, over the graphic nature of AIDS educational materials.
The CDC had sought the proposals as part of a campaign to stop the spread of AIDS, which is transmitted primarily through intimate sexual contact. The materials, both written and audio-visual, would instruct male homosexuals and bisexuals--those at highest risk for AIDS--on "safe" sexual practices.
Gay rights groups welcomed the release of the funds but warned that the government was unrealistic in its educational approach to controlling the epidemic.
"Sex education to halt this disease has to be explicit if it's going to be effective," said Jeff Levi, political director of the National Gay Task Force. "I'm not sure this new approach reflects an understanding of what has to be done."
Dr. Neil Schram, head of the L.A. City/County AIDS Task Force, agreed. "Trying to change sexual behavior to make it safer is one of the most difficult public health procedures that we have faced in our lifetimes," he said. "The more restrictions placed on efforts to do that, the less likely they are to succeed."
The CDC advised also in its memo that materials "should communicate risk reduction messages by inference rather than through any display of the anogenital area of the body or overt depiction of the performance of 'safer sex' or 'unsafe sex' practices."
The CDC said that applicants, working with state or local health departments, should establish their own review panels of no fewer than five persons who represent a broad cross section of the community.
A majority of a panel's members must come from a "non-target group," presumably the heterosexual community, the CDC said. The review board will not be subject to CDC approval, Berreth said.
Destroys Immune System
AIDS, or acquired immune deficiency syndrome, destroys the body's immune system, leaving it powerless against infections. In addition to male homosexuals and bisexuals, those at highest risk include intravenous drug users and their steady sexual partners. It has also been spread through transfusions of contaminated blood or blood products, although there is now a test that has now made that risk slight.
As of Jan. 13, there was a total of 16,458 cases of AIDS, with 8,361 deaths.