California voters deserve to feel good about themselves these days. They convincingly trounced Proposition 102, the terribly misguided AIDS initiative that would have done great harm.
With 102 out of the way, there is an almost irresistible temptation now to take it easy for a while. Unfortunately, we can't afford to. AIDS still presents us with formidable challenges not only in the laboratory but in public-policy formulation as well. Here are a few of those challenges:
--We must face up to the fact that, though many of the activities that result in the transmission of AIDS are either illegal or not talked about in polite society, we still need to act if we want to save lives. We must deal with reality, not our idea of clean and upright living. For instance, AIDS is commonly transmitted by the use of contaminated needles by drug abusers. Medical experts are thus put into the uncomfortable position of saying: "In the course of your illegal activities, please be sure to use uncontaminated needles."
So be it. That does not sit well with people who regard AIDS as a fault, not a disease, but it still needs to be done. Let's quit arguing about it. The alternative is to write off countless lives.
--We must try again for a law outlawing discrimination against people with human immunodeficiency virus. Anti-discrimination legislation cleared the California Legislature last year but was vetoed by the governor. We must try again. The alternative is to shun the victim.
--We must find a way of communicating more effectively with three groups of people who, because of at-risk behavior like intravenous drug use or experimenting with sex, now face the greatest chances of contracting AIDS. The three groups are blacks, Latinos and teen-agers. The mainstream media do not always reach them. This means that we must experiment with innovative communication strategies--something that works for the people we want to reach, not for the Establishment. That may mean, for instance, making greater use of social workers, bartenders, clergymen, barbers, teachers and politicians as primary communicators to these groups.
--We must try again to guarantee AIDS education to children in our public schools. It should be appropriate to age levels, it should be matter-of-fact and it should be available to every child. Our children deserve to learn about AIDS in the classroom, not on the playground.
Legislation to do that won approval from lawmakers during their last session but was vetoed by the governor.
--Finally, what we do not need is another AIDS initiative conceived in ignorance and spread through fear. Unbelievably, Rep. William E. Dannemeyer (R-Fullerton), a chief proponent of Proposition 102, says that he'll be back with another, similar, proposal. His fellow Proposition 102 proponent, Paul Gann, says, "A lot of people want me to come back with (a measure that says) certain groups will have to have to have a blood test." Let's dissuade them from advocating such schemes. We cannot devote our full energies to the battle against this devastating epidemic if we are constantly fighting off politicians blundering about in the medical arena.
The nearly 2-1 defeat of Proposition 102 was testimony to California voters' common sense. I hope that we hang onto that common sense, because the battle against AIDS in the years ahead is going to make us sad, bewildered, angry and frustrated. If we keep our heads, though, it may ultimately make us victorious.