Fear is one element of the AIDS crisis, and ignorance is the other.
Health officials report that myths about the disease still abound, including an attitude many people have that it can't happen to them.
"There is still a lot of denial," said Wendy Arnold, community outreach coordinator for AIDS Project Los Angeles. "People still think it's only a gay white man's disease. Also, a lot of people feel there is a cure right around the corner. So why do they need to curb their activity when eventually there will be a cure? But there isn't always a long incubation period for the disease--an individual can be exposed and come down with a full-blown case of AIDS a couple of months later."
Trying to determine someone's safety by looks alone doesn't work either, she warned. "If a person looks healthy, he or she still could be carrying the AIDS virus. This is trying to judge a book by its cover."
Arnold added that fears persist about catching AIDS through casual contact. "At my health club," she said, "I hear people saying they're not going to get in the sauna or the whirlpool because they're afraid of catching it. These are the two extremes--total denial or believing you can catch AIDS by just touching someone." However, casual contact does not spread AIDS, according to researchers.
Choosing partners by geographic location or marital status may not be the best idea, according to Dr. Peter R. Wolfe, an internist and assistant clinical professor of medicine at UCLA who is also a specialist in infectious diseases. "It's a matter of how many sexual partners you've had," he said. "It's Russian roulette, basically. The risk of one sexual encounter in Omaha, Neb. in 1983 with someone who hadn't been to New York probably is not that great, but that's really pointless to think that way because people are so mobile. They shouldn't be lulled into safety thinking about geographic boundaries."
As for having an affair with someone who is married, Wolfe said the risk is in "the number of sexual partners that person has had. There are many married people who have been with others outside their marriage."
Dr. James Lipsett, director of clinical radiation oncology at City of Hope National Medical Center, said there is still a "very prevalent" but erroneous belief that insects, such as mosquitoes, can spread AIDS.
He added that there is also confusion about how the virus can be transmitted by humans. "Some men seem to think that it's easy for them to give it to a woman, but that they can't get it from a woman. And a lot of people feel that the efficiency of transmission is greatest from one man to another, the next greatest would be a man to a woman, then a woman to a man. But there is no data to show that. There may be some credence that the efficiency is less from a woman to a man, but we don't know that. And we're dealing with a disease that is so deadly we can't pin our hopes on it."