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The Panic Builds at AIDS Testing Centers : Health Professionals Urge Heterosexuals to 'Calm Down'

March 20, 1987|BOB SIPCHEN

The couple sat in a crowded room that bristled with edgy confusion, quietly waiting to be tested for exposure to the lethal AIDS virus. On the woman's lap was Erica Jong's 1973 tribute to casual sex: "Fear of Flying."

The irony of her reading selection wasn't lost on the 31-year-old waitress.

"It's really sad, because sex is so fun . . . natural . . . enjoyable, free, tender . . ." she said, almost dreamily.

A Gentle Smile

The 28 year-old cement worker who had accompanied her to the center, a state-sponsored anonymous test site in Long Beach, gave her a gentle smile. "Now it's just fear," he said.

For about five years, gay communities have been terrorized by the spread of AIDS. Now, almost overnight it seems, AIDS anxiety is coursing through the collective consciousness of mainstream America.

"I feel a building momentum of panic," said Richard Bank, a private practice gynecologist in Beverly Hills who reports "at least a dozen calls every day," about testing from his largely heterosexual clientele.

"We're overwhelmed," said Tom Dougherty, a registered nurse and coordinator of the AIDS antibody testing program at the Long Beach Health Department, which has had to turn away "300-400" people who have called the two Long Beach test sites or lined up before the scheduled clinics to have their blood analyzed.

Suddenly some of the same health professionals who worked hard to let the world know that AIDS is not just a gay disease have another message for heterosexuals: "Calm down."

The first major wave of national concern began to peak a month ago, with intensified media coverage of the heterosexual risk--including cover stories in Time and Newsweek. Nationally, clinics reported increases of up to 150% in the number of people seeking the AIDS antibody test--with 50% to 70% of those requests coming from heterosexuals--as opposed to 10%-20% inquiries initially.

Then on Tuesday, public health officials suggested that the 12-million Americans who have received blood transfusions between 1978 and 1985 undergo testing. Now many of those administering the tests fear the snowball of heterosexual inquiries will become an avalanche.

Although none are downplaying the seriousness of the disease, they warn that among other problems created by the current atmosphere, the growing numbers of low-risk heterosexuals clogging the test sites in Los Angeles County may be discouraging high-risk people from getting tested.

Blood Donations Screened

Many hospitals and private physicians give confidential AIDS tests at prices ranging from $50 to $150, but they cannot guarantee that the people tested will never be named, health officials say. All blood donations are now screened for the AIDS virus, but the Red Cross discourages donating blood as a way of getting tested. Because of increased workloads at existing test locations, the County Board of Supervisors Tuesday approved two new free test sites, which guarantee anonymity, scheduled to open by the end of April.

"It feels like hysteria to me. You see it in faces and hear it on the telephone when people call (about the test)" said Jackie Gelfand, a counselor at the Edmund D. Edelman Health Center in Hollywood--where it now takes a minimum of eight weeks to get an appointment for the test.

"They're saying, I can't wait! I can't sleep at night! I have to come in now!"

In general, heterosexuals have not had contact with the deluge of information on AIDS that has saturated homosexual communities, and are not reassured when Gelfand tells them that a delay of eight weeks is not likely to change their test results. Nor are they encouraged by the low rate of positive tests among heterosexuals who do not fit into any of the identified "behavior risk" groups--gays, bisexuals, intervenous drug users, hemophiliacs, persons who've received blood transfusions between 1978-85, and those who have had sexual relations with someone in one of those groups (the risk level of multiple partner heterosexuals is still under debate).

"I think the degree to which there is a panic is unnecessary," Gelfand said. But she does understand the fear. About 12,000 people have undergone testing at the Edelman clinic in Hollywood since October, 1985. Gelfand has counseled about a third of those.

Psychological Problems

Although testing positive for AIDS antibodies does not necessarily mean that the person will develop AIDS, the news of a positive test can be psychologically devastating, and mere anticipation of the test results can cause psychological problems, she said.

For that reason, people seeking the test are carefully counseled, said Hugh Rice, director of the center. "We just don't fling open our doors and say 'Come one come all and be tested.' "

In many cases, there is no good reason to know if one has the antibodies in his or her bloodstream, Rice said. "The usefulness of this piece of information varies from individual to individual."

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