CHICAGO — Companies must educate employees about AIDS to prevent "groundless hysteria" when a co-worker contracts the deadly disease, the U.S. surgeon general said Tuesday.
"In the age of AIDS, our science may be good and our strategic planning may be innovative, but if we cannot get the AIDS prevention message across to our fellow managers and our employees--then we have failed," Dr. C. Everett Koop said at a forum for business leaders preparing a corporate response to the AIDS crisis.
"We need you to set the example for being fair and objective and for not succumbing to groundless hysteria," he said in a speech to about 200 executives.
"We need you to be informed about AIDS, to inform your employees about AIDS and to encourage your employees to exercise appropriate preventive measures."
Several of the executives attending the two-day conference said that many companies nationwide have neglected the AIDS problem or have been slow to develop policies for dealing with workers who become infected.
"Despite the millions of words written on the subject, despite the human and financial costs, American business has been strangely silent on the subject of AIDS," said Herb Lister, chairman of Allstate Life Insurance Co., which organized the conference.
Lister said a recent survey of 100 Fortune 1000 companies found that only 29 had policies for dealing with AIDS among their employees.
Today, the business executives plan to develop specific AIDS policy recommendations. Officials plan to reconvene the conference in Washington in January to issue the final recommendations and present them to federal officials.
"We want this conference to be the catalyst that helps companies of all sizes to come to grips with the AIDS issues," Lister said. "Within the corporate community, we've decided it's time we fought back. It's time we faced the fears and overcame the confusion."
Koop said company education programs should tell employees how the deadly disease is spread, who is at risk and how they can guard against getting the disease by changing high-risk behavior.
More important, he said, employers must inform workers about "why AIDS is not contagious at the work site and why the stigma that accompanies the diagnosis leads to irrational and unfair behavior."
Employees with AIDS should be permitted to work as long as they can without endangering themselves, Koop said.
AIDS, or acquired immune deficiency syndrome, cripples the body's defenses against disease, leaving a person prey to infections and certain cancers.
The fatal disease has no cure. It is believed to be spread mainly through sexual intercourse, shared hypodermic needles and from infected mothers to fetuses and breast-feeding infants.
More than 42,000 AIDS cases have been diagnosed in the United States so far and more than 24,000 people have died from the disease in this country.
Wells Fargo Bank in San Francisco began developing an AIDS education program for its workers in May, 1983, holding voluntary seminars on company time and distributing pamphlets and other information, said Bryan Lawton, a vice president and the bank's director of employee assistance services. Lawton, who attended the conference, said that his company has known of 15 to 20 cases of AIDS among the ranks of its employees, but prevented panic with the education program.