Throughout history, devastating epidemics have struck the world from time to time, but there has never been one like AIDS. This is a disease that is not transmitted easily or casually--not by sneezing, not by touching, not by being in the same room with an infected person. It is transmitted by sexual contact or directly through the blood, and in this country, it has largely been confined to two groups--homosexual men and drug addicts--among whom it has wreaked havoc. More than half of the 25,000 people who have gotten AIDS have died, and no one has recovered from it.
Now comes Proposition 64, which seeks to offer a "public health" response to this terrible disease. Proposition 64, put on the ballot by the wacko Lyndon LaRouche and his disciples, would declare AIDS an "infectious, contagious and easily communicable disease" under the state's health law, thereby requiring that all cases of infection be reported to the authorities. It would prohibit people who had been exposed to the AIDS virus from working as teachers or food handlers, would permit school officials to bar students with the virus, would allow universal testing for it and, ultimately, would permit the state to confine--quarantine--those who tested positive.
There is no public benefit in any of these steps, and there is considerable risk both to the health and to the civil liberties of people in the high-risk groups. Make no mistake about it. Proposition 64 is homophobia disguised as public health.
Public fear of a fatal disease is understandable, but in the case of AIDS, it is misplaced. The fact that high-risk groups exist should be proof enough that AIDS is not easily spread. If it were like the flu--that is, if it could be spread through the air--AIDS would not be confined to homosexuals and drug addicts. It would already have spread through the population at large.
In the last year, several studies have been conducted of persons living in the same household with people with AIDS without sexual contact. Several hundred people have been studied, and though they used the same dishes, the same towels, the same linens and the same toilets as the people with AIDS, not a single person contracted the AIDS virus. So it is reasonable to conclude that heterosexuals and people who do not shoot up drugs are at no risk from being around people with AIDS.
On the face of it, the idea of making AIDS infection reportable sounds harmless. After all, other diseases are already in that category without untoward effect. But a state-maintained list of people with the AIDS virus would be tantamount to a list of homosexuals. Far from serving public-health interests, such a requirement would harm public health. It would make those at highest risk for AIDS unwilling to be tested, thereby increasing the risk of exposure to potential sexual partners. It would drive people underground and make them less likely to participate in the medical research that is crucial to conquering AIDS.
Proposition 64's envisioning of universal testing is not conceivable. Are 26 million Californians to be tested, not just once but periodically to make sure they haven't picked up the virus since the last time they were tested? Even if it were needed, it is not clear that the public would stand for such a program--much less pay for it. And it isn't needed.
Finally, the notion of quarantining persons with the AIDS virus is simply impossible, even if there were a good reason to do it. An estimated 300,000 Californians have been exposed to AIDS and perhaps as many as 2 million people nationwide. Could such a quarantine possibly be accomplished? Where would these people be kept? They would have to be confined, housed, clothed, fed and provided with work and social activity for the rest of their lives. It is ludicrous even to consider it.
If Proposition 64 were a question of public health versus civil liberties, perhaps-- perhaps --public health would win.
But public health is not at stake. The debate over this mean-spirited proposition has diverted attention, energy and money from the real work that has to be done: finding a cure for AIDS and a vaccine to protect those at risk.
This serious medical effort will not be helped by misinformation or fear.