The AIDS story

By MARK JURKOWITZ  |  January 5, 2007

The Centers for Disease Control now report 28,246 confirmed AIDS cases and 15,853 deaths. Official estimates put the number of Americans already infected with AIDS at 1.5 million – most of them unaware of their condition. All of them are capable of infecting others for the rest of their lives. The US Public Health Service projects a total of 270,000 cases by 1991, but there is a widespread belief that that number is low and that it does not take into account people with ARC (AIDS-related complex), who may already outnumber AIDS patients 10 to one. Heterosexual transmission accounts for 1060 of the current reported cases and the CDC says the disease can be spread from male to female and female to male through vaginal intercourse. In AIDS-ravaged Africa, where as many as five million people may already be carrying the virus, 50 percent of the victims are women, and heterosexual sex is believed by leading researchers to be the primary means of transmission. The only people currently considered at no risk for AIDS are those who’ve been in a mutually monogamous relationship since 1977, provided neither partner received a blood transfusion or injected illegal drugs. Unless you are in that no-risk category, “safe sex” now entails using a condom (and they can break) for vaginal, anal, and even oral sex.

Until science produces an effective treatment or vaccine, the only obstacle in the path of this potentially rampant AIDS devastation is a massive campaign of public education. But because the Reagan administration has failed to provide any kind of leadership (with the exception of recent, belated efforts by the surgeon general) to avert a national health disaster, the news media now find themselves in the unusual position of not only reporting on AIDS but playing what may be a decisive role in the battle against the disease, as reporters scramble, in this vacuum of leadership, to alert the slumbering masses to the deadly invader before it’s too late.

By and large, the press is trying very hard to fulfill what Newsweek’s Boston bureau chief, Mark Starr, calls a “moral obligation” to serve as the crucial conduit between the laboratory to the living room in this rapidly evolving crisis. When the AIDS story surfaced, in 1981, the mainstream media embarked on a perilous journey into uncharted territory: not only did they have to unravel the scientific mysteries of a baffling new virus, they also needed to try to understand a gay culture they had largely ignored and to deal with sexual practices they had never dared discuss. Precious time – and credibility – was lost while reporters and editors struggled to get a handle on all the complex elements. In many cases, they were unable to penetrate a public wall of denial and fear to provide the clear and unmistakable warnings needed to save those standing in the immediate path of the AIDS epidemic. Today, with AIDS menacing the political, social, economic, and physical well-being of the nation, the fate of millions may depend on a reversal of that tragic track record.

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