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Stern Voice on AIDS

November 03, 1986

One of the most serious and imminent crises facing the United States today is AIDS, the deadly disease that threatens to become a "catastrophe," according to the National Academy of Sciences.

The numbers are stark and unarguable. The Public Health Service has already projected that there will be a total of 179,000 more deaths from AIDS in this country by 1991. Frank Press, the president of the National Academy of Sciences, said last week that by 1990, more Americans will die from AIDS each year than were killed in the Vietnam war--some 58,000 people. So far, AIDS has struck more than 26,000 Americans, more than half of whom have died.

The National Academy and its Institute of Medicine were absolutely accurate last week in describing government efforts against AIDS to date as woefully inadequate. They called for "presidential leadership" in the fight and a large increase in funding for education and for medical research to develop a vaccine and a cure for AIDS.

At the moment, and for the foreseeable future, education is the only tool available to reduce the spread of this disease. But AIDS is a venereal disease, and most of its victims in this country have been homosexual men. The combination of sexuality and homosexuality have made most public officials from the President down very reluctant to say much. Compare President Ford's reaction a decade ago to Legionnaire's disease, whose victims were counted in the dozens.

No one is at risk for AIDS from casual social contact, so Proposition 64 on tomorrow's ballot is still very much the wrong idea. But everyone--heterosexuals and homosexuals alike--is at risk from sexual contact.

Teen-agers and young adults may be at greatest risk. They tend to be sexually active and to think of themselves as immortal. They must be told in explicit and graphic terms if necessary what sexual practices to avoid and how to protect themselves from the AIDS virus. Sexual intercourse without a condom is dangerous.

Surgeon General C. Everett Koop made admirably clear and straightforward recommendations about AIDS two weeks ago. The National Academy's report echoes his ideas and carries them forward. Our society's squeamishness about discussing sex is costing lives and will cost many more in the future.

It is time for educators and all elected officials to recognize AIDS as the deadly threat it is. The National Academy of Sciences has made clear that we are facing an unprecedented menace with grave consequences. AIDS is not a problem for "them" that the rest of society can ignore. It is a problem for everyone, and it demands immediate and massive attention.

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