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The Times Poll : AIDS Fears Ease While Views Harden

July 16, 1989|ROBERT STEINBROOK | Times Medical Writer

Even as the number of AIDS cases approaches 100,000 nationwide, concern about the disease among the general public has peaked and is now declining, The Times Poll has found.

The drop in anxiety about AIDS, which has killed almost 60,000 Americans since 1981, is due largely to lower concern among whites and people over age 40 that they personally will be affected by the epidemic, the poll found.

As a result, the percentage of Americans reporting that they have made substantial changes in their life style because of AIDS has dropped, and more Americans now voice support for forceful measures to identify those infected with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)--even at the expense of civil rights.

'More Hard-Nosed'

"There is a solid indication that concern about AIDS has peaked among the general public," said Times Poll director I. A. Lewis. "There is a more hard-nosed attitude about AIDS as a public health problem than we have seen before. Concern about protecting the civil liberties of infected individuals seems to have fallen by the wayside."

Despite the drop in general concern, worry about AIDS remains high among blacks and Latinos and younger Americans--groups often identified by health officials as being at increased risk of contracting HIV. One in five adults ages 18 to 39, as well as about one-third of blacks and Latinos, say they have made "almost total" or "large" life style changes because of AIDS, the poll found.

The poll's findings reflect the changing nature of the AIDS epidemic, which first struck mostly homosexual men but since has spread disproportionately to blacks and Latinos through unsafe sexual practices and intravenous drug use. The virus is transmitted through unprotected sexual intercourse, through the sharing of AIDS-tainted needles and from mother to child in the womb.

AIDS education efforts generally urge people not to have sex with infected individuals, to use condoms during sex and to limit the number of their sexual partners to lower the risk of contracting the disease.

Dr. Gary R. Noble, director of AIDS programs at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, said the poll results contained "good news and bad news."

'Disproportionate Impact'

He said he was encouraged by the high levels of concern voiced by blacks and Latinos because of "the disproportionate impact of AIDS on minority populations." But he said he was discouraged by the decline in the number of individuals who reported AIDS-related life style changes.

There may be "an element of boredom or apathy or feeling that it is not me at risk," Noble said. "It makes me concerned that people may be returning to risky behavior."

The Times Poll, a nationwide telephone survey of 3,583 Americans ages 18 and older, was conducted July 8 to 13. It repeated a number of questions asked in Times polls about AIDS in December, 1985, and July, 1987.

The sampling error of the latest poll was plus or minus 2 percentage points. This means that the results could vary by two percentage points in either direction if every adult in the country had been interviewed in the same way.

Although Americans remain worried about AIDS, the intensity of that concern has slackened appreciably, the latest poll found.

Cancer remains the disease Americans are "most afraid of getting," followed by AIDS and heart disease. But since the last poll in 1987, the percentage of respondents ranking AIDS as the most feared disease has dropped 11 points (to 19%) and cancer has risen 3 (to 43%).

Moreover, the percentage of Americans who said they were "concerned" about AIDS as "a problem for your own personal health" declined to 37% after peaking at 46% in 1987. In 1985, the figure was 42%.

A far different pattern was seen among blacks, Latinos and younger adults. Of those interviewed in the current survey, 70% of blacks, 60% of Latinos and 46% of younger adults said they were concerned about AIDS as a personal health problem.

Surpasses Cancer

AIDS was ranked ahead of cancer as the most feared disease by 48% of Latinos and 42% of blacks. It was ranked as the most feared disease by 30% of adults ages 18 to 39.

As concern about AIDS has diminished, so has the percentage of Americans reporting that AIDS has caused a significant change in their life style--falling from 18% in 1987 to 13% in the current poll. The percentage for those 40 and older peaked in 1987 at 15% and in the latest survey fell to 7%--roughly the same as in 1985.

As of June 30, the CDC reported 99,936 AIDS cases nationwide. That figure is six times the number of AIDS cases when the survey was conducted in 1985 and about three times what it was in 1987. According to the CDC, 58,014 Americans have died of AIDS.

The latest Times Poll found increased support for mandatory HIV testing of high-risk individuals, such as homosexual men and intravenous drug users--but declining support for additional federal spending to combat the disease.

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