WASHINGTON — Washington. -- As ye sow, says the Good Book, so shall ye reap. AIDS activists learned the truth of that maxim when the Senate voted to create a new federal crime. Senators have been scared silly. So have we all.
Under an amendment to an appropriations bill, doctors and dentists who carry the deadly HIV virus must advise their patients of their condition before performing any ''invasive procedure.'' Failure to do so would subject the health professionals to 10 years in prison and a fine of $10,000.
The doctors understandably are furious, but the Senate's vote is understandable also. I would have voted for the amendment myself. Who wants an AIDS-infected surgeon who nicks himself over an incision?
We are told by statisticians that since 1981, only five persons are believed to have contracted the AIDS virus through transmission from doctor to patient. Lightning strikes more often. But AIDS activists have generated fears beyond their wildest dreams. Publicity has panicked Congress into voting more than $2 billion this year for AIDS prevention, treatment and research.
Looking back over a long life of covering public affairs, I cannot recall anything quite like the mushrooming concern over AIDS. Fears of poliomyelitis in the 1930s cannot well be compared.
Perhaps a precedent could be cited from the days of Sen. Joe McCarthy, when a fear of communists swept the nation into a frenzy of fear and detestation. It is not a bad analogy. In those days communists were viewed as ideological typhoid Marys, carrying a virus that could jeopardize national security and infect our public institutions. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover stirred passions to critical mass. Congress passed laws. It was a wildly irrational time.
The AIDS establishment, if so it may be termed, has succeeded too well in arousing fears that are at once grimly real and largely imaginary. Activists have marched, lobbied and conducted dramatic demonstrations on the Mall. In San Francisco, zealots shouted down Health Secretary Louis Sullivan when he attempted to defend the government's program of AIDS assistance. Nothing has satisfied the activists who have demanded more, and more, and more from Congress. You would think that AIDS was the leading killer of all time.
The uproar is deafening; it drowns out the facts. Between 1981 and June of 1991, when roughly 116,000 persons were dying of AIDS, roughly 7 million were dying of heart disease and 4 million were dying of cancer. The Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta estimate that 42,000 persons may die of AIDS this year. About the same number will die in accidents on the highway.
By definition, AIDS is an ''epidemic,'' a sudden and widely prevalent eruption of a contagious disease. Though the number of new cases appears to be leveling off, an estimated 1 million persons carry the HIV virus. Of these, about 5 or 6 percent will be recorded annually as new cases of AIDS itself. Eventually, it is assumed, all of the 1 million will die of AIDS; but eventually all of us will die of something anyhow.
In the furor raised by activists, death by AIDS has taken on an aura of its own. It is as if death by AIDS were something special, deserving a larger level of compassion than we feel for death by cystic fibrosis or leukemia. Why so? To be sure, when an innocent child dies of AIDS, we are deeply moved. The case of Kimberly Bergalis, who contracted AIDS from her dentist, touched the nation.
As for the rest? I don't know. The Centers for Disease Control estimate that 59 percent of AIDS cases result from male homosexual relations, which is to say, from sodomy. Drug addicts count for 22 percent through the use of contaminated needles. Another 13 percent involve heterosexual relations with infected addicts or homosexuals. Six percent are classed as ''other.''
A House committee last year described the epidemic as ''no less a national disaster than a hurricane or earthquake,'' but this is bunk. This is no national crisis. AIDS is a serious and expensive problem in public health, brought on largely by people who did it to themselves.
If doctors will pledge to abide by new safety guidelines recommended by the CDC, that should suffice. The Senate amendment could be scrubbed. Those doctors who offend fatally will not be excused. Manslaughter is still part of the law of the land.
James J. Kilpatrick is a syndicated columnist.