Not Taking Chances


OCCASIONALLY THE COLD wet fish of truth hits society so hard that it is forced to reconsider its basic assumptions. Both the Titanic and Hindenberg disasters, for example, gave lie to the notion that men had completely conquered the elements of sea and air. In the same way Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) is now shaking our faith in our ability to control disease. If we cannot realistically reassess the role of sickness in our-lives, we will be as doomed as those ill-fated passengers.

Our ancestors dealt with death and disease forthrightly and, by today's standards, insensitively. Their attitudes toward sickness and their public health policy reflected priorities that differ significantly from our own. Lepers and typhoid carriers were taken away and permanently isolated; murderers were hanged. One could claim that the attitudes that motivate quarantine and capital punishment are barbaric; but in fact a lack of options mandated, even created, these attitudes.

Not so long ago, for instance, child mortality rather than our contemporary dilemmas of how to keep kids quiet in the classroom and fair on the playground was the main problem. Consequently, children were taught differently. Death appeared often in rhymes and stories. "Ring Around the Rosy," for example, is about the Black Death, and "Hansel and Gretel" contains images of infanticide and immolation.

In contrast, one would be hard pressed to find such images in even the most violent of Saturday morning cartoons. Teaching kids to be sociable is our era's priority: It is seven o'clock in the morning, and a nation of restless children sits spellbound before the TV image of an enormous yellow muppet. Watching "Sesame Street", they will learn how to cooperate, how not to hurt others' feelings, how to get along with people who are different from themselves. In the wake of the advances in public health and medicine, fellow classmates, more than the spectre of death, confront children.

Similarly, the present-day attitude toward disease has been tempered by modern medicine. Many of the ogres of the past, including small pox, polio, and tuberculosis, have been tamed or eliminated. With the advent of microsurgery, even chainsaws and lawnmowers have lost their element of danger. Death has been driven back to the frontier of old age, and so become distant and less real.

AIDS, however, has brought back the ogre of death by disease, and even by epidemic, in a guise perhaps more frightening than any in the 20th century. Yet, having seen so many giants conquered, we seem to have lost our fear of new diseases. We tend to think that every problem can eventually be solved given enough time and money. In light of this ingrained optimism, it would seem pointlessly harsh to isolate AIDS victims or in any way restrict their freedom.

BUT THE TABLES have been turned on us. AIDS simply doesn't fit in with our usual ways of dealing with disease. It is lethal, spreading, and as yet, incurable. No measures or treatments have yet had any effect on its incredible virulence.

Information gathered on AIDS seems to indicate that it can be spread only by sexual contact and the exchange of body fluids. Yet it is absurd to assume that carriers of the AIDS virus--many of whom do not realize that they are carriers, and some of whom are prostitutes--will unanimously refrain from having sex. The only feasible option we have right now is to identify AIDS carriers and take steps to isolate them. Proposals of this kind go against the grain of what society deems decent, and so provoke a good deal of hubbub. What people seem to have forgotten, though, is that AIDS victims are going to die, period. While an AIDS carrier may not be suffering from syptoms himself, he may be endangering his neighbors.

The containment of AIDS must be our top priority, even if the expense of personal liberties. The public must be screened, and AIDS carriers must be isolated in hospitals or special treatment centers. In addition, given the extreme vulnerability of prostitutes to sexually transmitted diseases, prostitution must either be banned outright-a difficult task at best--or legalized and regulated.

Such legislation will not be passed tomorrow. No society is eager to adopt measures which chafe against its most basic conceptions of jecency. But like our forefathers, we have no other options. When and if it becomes common to see friends die, when the fear our ancestors felt returns, our attitude will change.