Reprinted from The New York Times, June 15, 2001
Fear Spread Faster Than AIDS
By John Tierny
“We need to put AIDS in context. We’ve been
brainwashed into thinking the numbers are greater than they are.
The heterosexual breakout is not going to happen in America.”
In July of 1988, at the height of the AIDS epidemic, the estimated
number of cases in New York City suddenly plummeted. The city health
commissioner soon needed police protection.
Until that July, the city had estimated that 400,000 New Yorkers
carried the AIDS virus. Then the commissioner, Dr. Stephen C. Joseph,
reviewed the evidence and reduced the estimate to 200,000. He was
promptly denounced by leaders of AIDS organizations and gay rights
groups who accused him of lying to minimize the crisis. Members
of ACT UPwere arrested once for staging a sit-in at the Health Department,
and again for occupying Dr. Joseph’s office. Hecklers trailed
him at public appearances chanting, “Resign! Resign!”
His home was picketed and spray-painted. There were death threats.
Now it turns out that Dr. Joseph’s estimate was actually too
high. It might have been twice the actual figure, according to a
new report from the American Council on Science and Health, a science
advocacy group. The total number of AIDS cases diagnosed in New
York City from 1981 through early 2000 was less than 120,000, the
A.C.S.H. report notes.
That toll still makes AIDS a horrific tragedy, of course, but the
disease never caused the widespread plague prophesied by so many
activists, journalists and researchers. In their zeal for attention
and money, they didn’t let facts interfere with fear mongering,
and not many public officials had Dr. Joseph’s courage to
stand up to them.
The campaign began on the cover of Life magazine in 1980: “Now
No One Is Safe From AIDS.” Federal officials said that AIDS
could be worse than the black plague, and they conducted national
television, radio and direct mail campaigns aimed at heterosexuals.
The officials wildly overestimated the number of AIDS cases, although
they were more conservative than Oprah Winfrey, who warned that
a fifth of heterosexuals could be dead by 1990.
Masters and Johnson warned that AIDS could lurk on toilet seats.
A sex therapist, Helen Singer Kaplan, wrote a book, “The Real
Truth About Women and AIDS,” warning that condoms weren’t
enough and that even kissing was a risk. Magic Johnson’s illness
in 1991 was presented as the proof that HIV was finally breaking
out into the heterosexual population.
But by then there was abundant evidence that the heterosexual breakout
was not going to happen in America. The evidence had appeared long
before that in New York, thanks in large part to the efforts of
city workers like Anatasia Lekatsas. I once called her America’s
most dogged street detective of AIDS, and no one disputed that label.
During the mid-1980’s she investigated the Health Department’s
N.I.R. (no identified risk) cases.
If a man claimed to have gotten AIDS from a woman, she would visit
him, revisit him, interview his family and friends, and eventually
she would almost always find that he’d been sharing needles
or having sex with men.
While other cities were credulously reporting that the epidemic
was spreading beyond gay men and drug users, in New York the heterosexual
breakout did not show up in statistics. Among the first 15,000 cases
in New York, there were only eight men listed as having gotten the
virus though heterosexual sex, and even that number was probably
too high. “I have doubts about seven of them,” Ms. Lekatsas
said, “but we couldn’t prove anything.”
That evidence made it into some publications, notably Discover magazine,
which in 1985 debunked the heterosexual breakout with a cover declaring
that AIDS would likely remain “largely the fatal price one
can pay for anal intercourse.” A journalist, Michael Fumento,
gathered the evidence in a 1990 book, “The Myth of Heterosexual
AIDS,” which many bookstores and distributors refused to sell
because of opposition from gay activists.
Today, surveys show that American heterosexuals still have unrealistic
fears of AIDS, and the crisis mongering goes on. It’s often
justified as the only way to focus attention on the disease. But
the constituency for AIDS is so well organized that the disease
is guaranteed to remain a high public priority. It already gets
more attention than other diseases that kill more people.
“AIDS was a genuine crisis in the 1980’s, but today
it’s no more a crisis than any other chronic diseased suffered
by New Yorkers,” said Dr. Elizabeth M. Whelan, thepresident
of A.C.S.H. “We need to put AIDS in context and give it the
proportionate share of resources. It shouldn’t be getting
more than its share because we’ve been brainwashed into thinking
the numbers are greater than they are.”