The AIDS story

By MARK JURKOWITZ  |  January 5, 2007

“I am sometimes just bowled over by what is happening here,” says McLaughlin, who believes the nation must finally “face up” to the scope of the problem. “I think the figures concerning the projections [for 270,000 cases by 1991] are very low.”

“I think people …  better reassess their sexual habits,” warns Channel 4’s Jeanne Blake, who in four years of reporting has seen AIDS move through the drug and gay communities and now head toward the rest of the population. “There are no high-risk groups anymore.”

These reporters, and many others like them, are trying to share their fears while it still matters. In a five-day span in mid November, the Globe published two articles targeted directly at specific groups moving to the frontline in the war to control AIDS. One discussed educational outreach efforts in Boston’s minority community, where intravenous-drug abuse threatens to swell already disproportionately high AIDS rates. The other monitored AIDS awareness among young heterosexuals, a group whose traditional interest in sampling the sexual smorgasbord must now be tempered by the looming shadow of AIDS.

In its chilling November 24 cover story, Newsweek was brutally frank about the dangers that lie ahead, stating that “thousands have already died and thousands more will follow: very soon, millions of Americans will know someone who succumbed to the disease.” And Blake doubtless caused a few sleepless nights when she aired a report warning that, in terms of AIDS spread, when you have sex with someone nowadays, you’re having sex with everyone your partner slept with for the past five to seven years.

To this point, the tragedy of AIDS reporting has been it frustrating failure to douse the fire while the building was still standing. The gay community is now acutely aware of the epidemic, and there is evidence of dramatic changes in the sexual habits of its members. Lives can be saved, but great damage has already been done: some estimates hold that as many as three-quarters of the gay men in cities like San Francisco and New York are already infected. The very nature of the needle culture renders it impervious to health warnings, and there may be no way to educate and influence many intravenous-drug users, who, according to some experts, will be the primary vehicle of AIDS spread to the straight world. The big question now is how effective the media will be in reaching sexually active heterosexuals, many of whom have already concluded that AIDS is someone else’s disease.

Thus far, Kessler is not particularly optimistic. “I hear the same language from straight singles that I heard from gay singles four years ago,” he says sadly.

If that language doesn’t change soon, Schram’s version of future shock may prove prophetic.

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