Analysis of aids anxiety

DATE: 5 APRIL 1987


EDITOR'S NOTE -- The medical questions raised by AIDS have been entwined with many ethical issues as well. This is another in an intermittent series of stories on these issues.

By LEE SIEGEL AP Science Writer

LOS ANGELES -- They're rushing out for AIDS tests in Chicago and Atlanta and flooding AIDS hotlines in New York. In Los Angeles, AIDS is the hot topic from suburban nail salons to Sunset Strip restaurants, and some house hunters refuse to look at Rock Hudson's home because he died of AIDS.

Fear of acquired immune deficiency syndrome is spreading through heterosexual society. Experts say many people are displaying their anxiety in irrational ways, rather than taking logical action to protect themselves.

"We're becoming an AIDS-worry society, but people are worrying about things they shouldn't be worrying about," said Dr. Neil Schram, chairman of the Los Angeles City-County AIDS Task Force.

"The things we should be doing to protect ourselves, most people are not doing." He said many who should are not using condoms, many continue to share intravenous drug equipment, many pregnant women who are at risk are not being tested for AIDS.

While AIDS anxiety probably has made people less likely to have sex with multiple partners, many still believe that "if you know your partner and he or she is a good person, then he or she couldn't possibly have the virus," Schram said. "Unfortunately, good people are infected with this virus."

Fears are also being expressed in "gay bashing" attacks on homosexuals, parents pulling children out of schools where students have AIDS, job and housing discrimination against AIDS patients and the reluctance by some to donate blood in the mistaken belief that it can cause AIDS.

More rational manifestations of AIDS anxiety include the recent run of condom ads on television and the increasing number of heterosexuals seeking AIDS antibody tests.

Scientists say overwhelming evidence shows AIDS is spread only through the exchange of semen and possibly vaginal fluids in intimate sexual contact, or through contaminated blood, particularly when drug users share hypodermic needles. It can also be passed from mother to child before or at birth.

The risk of getting the AIDS virus through blood transfusions has dropped to about 1 in 100,000 because of blood tests given prospective donors.

Several prospective buyers wouldn't consider purchasing the Beverly Hills house occupied by actor Rock Hudson before he died of AIDS complications in 1985, said real estate agent Elaine Young.

"They won't even go in the house," she said. "There are a few who have a fear of catching AIDS from touching things."

Restaurants in gay districts of San Francisco, New York and Los Angeles are shunned by many people.

"I know a lot of people who are afraid to eat at West Hollywood restaurants" because so many homosexuals live in the Los Angeles suburb, said civil rights lawyer Gloria Allred.

The Bon Appetit restaurant in suburban Sacramento reported scores of canceled reservations after the January AIDS death of a chef who had worked there five years earlier. Business improved only after California's health director and some politicians ate at the restaurant to show "the hysteria was silly," owner Ralph Granthem said.

At Gay Men's Health Crisis Inc., which helps AIDS patients in New York, "we consistently have television crews who will not come inside our building," said spokeswoman Lori Behrman.

About half the 4,000 calls received monthly by the center's AIDS hotline are from "worried well" people, half of whom are needlessly concerned about getting AIDS from swimming pools, insects or non-risky sex practices, said hotline coordinator Jerry Johnson.

The problem is that changing sexual or drug-use habits "requires a much greater change in your behavior than avoiding certain restaurants or swimming pools," said Joseph Pleck, a psychologist at Wheaton College in Norton, Mass. "People avoid the things that are easy to avoid, and that gives you a false sense of security."

AIDS "is causing a lot of women I know to be a lot less sexually available," said Allred.

Yet "the heterosexual population of this country is not (adequately) changing its sex habits," said Carol Levine, director of the AIDS and ethics project at the Hastings Center think tank outside New York City. "It's hard to confront sex, so instead they worry about standing next to somebody with AIDS or being in a restaurant."

Most American AIDS patients are homosexual, bisexual or intravenous drug abusers. Heterosexuals account for about 4 percent of the country's AIDS cases, but that figure is expected to rise to 10 percent by 1991, health officials say.

Barbara Lazaroff, co-owner of the Spago restaurant in West Hollywood, said she often hears worried heterosexuals "rehashing their entire sexual histories right across the dinner table."

When people look into their lovers' eyes, "they can't see the busload of people who have been their sexual partners during the past five years," said Dr. Theresa Crenshaw, president of the American Association of Sex Educators, Counselors and Therapists. "When you're having sex today, you're having sex with everyone they've had sex with in the last five years."

As awareness of that increases, so does the number of people seeking AIDS antibody tests to determine if they have been exposed to the AIDS virus.

"Up to 80 percent of the people now coming in are heterosexual, and that's a complete reversal of what it was a year ago where 80 percent of the people were gay or bisexual," said San Francisco Health Department spokesman Paul Barnes.

Clinics in Chicago, Boston, Florida and the Atlanta and Los Angeles areas also report being swamped by requests from heterosexuals for tests.

Yet, as more heterosexuals take the test, the number of patients testing positive for exposure to AIDS has dropped from about 25 percent to about 15 percent, said Erik Wheaton, of San Francisco's District Health Center No. 1.

Getting tested, Crenshaw said, "is a cheap price for peace of mind."

Prices vary widely, depending on whether a lab is public or private, among other factors. For the ELISA test, the basic screening test used by blood banks, the price ranges from $10 to $50, said Dr. Steven Kleinman, associate medical director for the American Red Cross in Los Angeles. The Western Blot confirmation test, used to reduce the percentage of false positive test results, costs from $25 to $100.

Mrs. Levine said one reason for unfounded AIDS fears is that "doctors are not very good communicators about sex" and fail to explain how AIDS is transmitted.

A survey of 399 people in New York, San Francisco and London found anti- homosexual attitudes and AIDS fears were greatest among those who knew the least about the disease, said the psychologist who conducted the study, Lydia Temoshok of the University of California, San Francisco.

"Wherever AIDS is coming into a new group or community, that's where you get the most panic," Temoshok said. "As people get informed, that gives way to more rationality."

Go Back to Shy David's Aquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome Page.