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Mobilizing to Combat AIDS

May 17, 1987

The report had to fall into the category of a rare event: something resembling good news about AIDS. The federal Centers for Disease Control announced Friday that the rate of incidence of the acquired immune deficiency syndrome among military recruits remained steady after 15 months of screening those entering the armed forces. This was good news only in the sense that health authorities had expected the results to be worse than they were.

Within the population as a whole, however, the number of AIDS cases reported during the period of last October through December averaged more than 38 per day, a 46% increase over the corresponding period in 1985. Even more alarming is the fact that 35,219 Americans had been diagnosed as having the disease by May 4, and 20,352 of those have died. Consider this next fact from the Centers for Disease Control: No one is known to have recovered from AIDS. Nor is there any known cure.

Against the backdrop of such grim news, the report from the military screening is, at best, modestly encouraging. There has been considerable speculation about the potential geometric growth in AIDS cases in coming years, but such forecasts are difficult to make because of the long incubation period and other uncertainties.

What is certain is that AIDS is a growing menace to American health and the nation has yet to respond in a systematic, comprehensive fashion. As with most crises that are steeped in mystery and fear, governmental agencies have tended to react in ad hoc scatter-gun fashion. Communities have mobilized most effectively in areas where awareness is high, like San Francisco.

Now, however, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), chairman of the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee, has proposed a program that would attack the AIDS problem on a broad national front. Congress should give priority attention to his plan, along with companion legislation Kennedy is developing with Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Los Angeles), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce health subcommittee.

The Kennedy plan, which may cost about $900 million, would accelerate research, provide new approaches to the care and treatment of AIDS patients, and launch an aggressive education, prevention and risk-reduction program. While the cost may seem high, it is a reasonable amount considering the toll that an unchecked AIDS epidemic could have on the nation. As Kennedy noted, "Unless research produces a surprising breakthrough in the treatment area, we are guaranteed to be facing a steadily increasing death toll and astronomical costs" through hospital care and lost productivity.

Waxman and Kennedy also will propose an AIDS testing program to encourage the screening of high-risk persons while guaranteeing confidentiality and protecting them against discrimination. Overall, the goal is to mobilize a national program that seeks to put "the nightmare of AIDS behind us," the senator said.

The conventional wisdom in Washington is that you cannot solve problems by throwing money at them. But at this point, not enough can be done to wage war on AIDS from every vantage point. And the sooner, the better.

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