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Reporter's Notebook : Scientists Exposed to Politics of AIDS

June 09, 1989|JANNY SCOTT | Times Medical Writer

MONTREAL — The inflation of Malcolm Potts' six-story condom on a vacant lot next to the Montreal convention center this week may go down in the history of the AIDS epidemic as a small but telling symbol of the strange marriage of science and guerrilla theater.

For one bright, shining moment, the banana-colored prophylactic bobbed gracefully against the crepuscular Quebec sky. Television cameramen spilled forth from the Fifth International Conference on AIDS to seize the first Nielsen-pleasing visual of a long, long day.

"I'm going to take a picture of my own condom!" chortled Potts, head of a reproductive health organization that commissioned the 77,000-cubic-foot hot-air balloon. In huge blue letters, Potts' condom carried the message "I save lives" and a North Carolina post office box number to write to for free condom samples.

Propaganda and politics have permeated the AIDS meeting, which winds up today after a week of symposiums and symbolism. To many, the event has marked a step toward the sensitization of science, while others shift uncomfortably in the face of what they see as a troubling intrusion into the hallowed scientific process.

Words and phrases not often heard at medical meetings have abounded: solidarity, manifesto, government genocide. Talk of self-empowerment and seven-point plans have seemed from time to time to drown out the language of monocyte/macrophages and neuropsychological impairment.

Safer, Not Safe Sex

"Are we, is the world, now mature enough, now wise enough, to accept that the deepest meaning of solidarity requires that we consider ourselves . . . infected with HIV--that we are all, on a human level, seropositive?" mused Dr. Jonathan Mann, head of the World Health Organization's global program on AIDS, during his opening plenary address.

Terminology is everything, and ever changing. "Safe sex" is being supplanted by the more cautious "safer sex." A group of demonstrators who overstayed their welcome were described politely as "the visitors." Some researchers now avoid the terms homosexual and bisexual in favor of the more neutral and all-inclusive "men who have sex with men."

In five days, researchers have presented several thousand papers. They have discussed everything from molecular biology to the psychology of AIDS. There have been papers on new drugs, possible vaccines, AIDS and physicians, AIDS and nurses, discrimination, AIDS rumors, even "A View From Scotland."

"We didn't expect this amount of diversity," confessed Dr. Robert Gallo of the National Cancer Institute and a co-discoverer of the AIDS virus.

"The meeting has become too overtly politicized," worried one top researcher, saying the conference seemed increasingly to be used by activists to get the ear of the media. Another said the conference was in danger of deteriorating from a leading scientific meeting into just another convention.

Each morning has begun early with a plenary session.

"My name is Mechai. In Thailand, that means condom," began Mechai Viravaidya, a master of the grand gesture, who built Thailand's acclaimed government-run family-planning program on condom songs, condom T-shirts and an army of Bangkok cab drivers dispensing birth control tools.

"Why are we so shy?" Viravaidya asked the snickering delegates as he popped open a perfumed condom and blew it up like a balloon. He conjured up a few less-known uses--tourniquet for a snake bite, canteen for Coca-Cola; or tear off the ring and use it for a hair band in the shower.

A few speakers were hissed and shouted down. Dr. Stephen Joseph, the New York City commissioner of health whose AIDS policies have not always been popular, plowed ahead with his speech through a wall of invective. People with AIDS spoke on panels and in plenary sessions; a small child with AIDS, wearing a sailor suit, made an appearance.

Spin doctors worked the press room like political campaign operatives, descending to put their own spin on the latest updates on drugs and vaccines in development. Researchers and AIDS activists mounted a steady stream of sometimes competing press conferences in a blue-curtained briefing room set aside for the purpose.

"Patients know all you know and more," Dr. Marcus A. Conant of UC San Francisco cautioned physicians at a drug-company-sponsored symposium on the drug AZT the morning before the AIDS conference opened. Urging sympathy for the emotional difficulties some patients face in accepting the need for treatment, Conant exhorted them: "Understand. Use your humanity."

Graphic Materials

Folding tables inside and outside the massive, concrete Palais de Congres displayed the latest in the worldwide war to educate people about how the AIDS virus is spread. Some were startling in their graphic depiction of safer sex--to make the medium provoke and the message appeal.

"If you're going to promote safer sex, you put it in an eroticized fashion,' explained Edward Jackson, director of education for the AIDS Committee of Toronto. Jackson's graphic and thoroughly un-euphemistic poster on the relative risks of oral and anal sex is used increasingly in gay bars.

The largest demonstration of the week came on opening night, when hundreds of men and women in black armbands surged, chanting, through the center and into the meeting hall. Fists raised and trailed by a cluster of television boom microphones, they filled the stage and officially proclaimed that the conference had begun.

"This is not the last you have heard of people living with AIDS," came a cry from the stage as thousands of delegates looked on in stunned silence. "This conference will change international AIDS conferences forever."

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