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Easing the Fear of AIDS

February 10, 1986

Despite repeated assurances from public-health professionals that AIDS is extremely difficult to transmit through casual social contact, many people have urged a policy of "better safe than sorry." As a result, some children with AIDS continue to face opposition to their attending school, and some adult AIDS patients have lost their jobs or homes. Even where the reactions have been less extreme, people with AIDS are frequently treated as modern-day lepers, shunned at the time they most need emotional support.

A report in the New England Journal of Medicine last week provides persuasive evidence that the health professionals have been right and that AIDS is a very, very difficult disease to catch in the absence of sexual contact or direct blood transfer. A study of 101 persons who lived with AIDS patients--including hugging them and sharing dishes and linens, but having no sexual contact--turned up only one person who had caught the AIDS virus. And that person, a 5-year-old girl, almost certainly got it from her mother while in the womb, the study concluded. All of the others not only didn't get AIDS, they showed no sign of infection despite the close and prolonged household contact.

The day after the report appeared, another case seemed to be a counter-example. A mother apparently caught it from her 2-year-old child, who had gotten it through a blood transfusion. But the mother had frequently handled the baby's blood, waste and feed tubes without wearing gloves. "The extent of what she did would be unusual for most parents," Dr. Harold Jaffe of the Centers for Disease Control explained.

So the evidence stands, and it bears repeating. AIDS is transmitted through the exchange of body fluids, principally through sexual contact or through tainted blood. The evidence says there is no danger of infection by being in the same room with an AIDS patient or even by touching. AIDS is not like the common cold or the flu, which can sweep through a classroom or office. No special public-health measures are needed to protect people from casual contact with AIDS patients.

Los Angeles already has an ordinance banning outright discrimination against people with AIDS. The new findings further support the wisdom of that law. But less egregious social discrimination remains. As the number of AIDS cases continues to increase (it passed 17,000 last week), there may be renewed anxiety about the risk to the health of the general public.

These fears are ill-founded. AIDS is a serious epidemic that has killed half of its victims so far while stymying researchers trying to combat it. But the public need not fear casual infection. In the absence of high-risk activity, AIDS is not a threat.

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