Deadly complacency

October 09, 1991

It would be gratifying to be able to report that after a decade of the AIDS scourge, public awareness in this country had been fully raised in order to combat the deadly epidemic. That is not the case. Most people do not even know that October has been designated AIDS Awareness Month. And today public policy regarding AIDS is, if anything, more confused and ineffectual than ever.

Despite the extraordinary scientific advances that have allowed researchers to isolate the HIV virus and trace its routes of transmission through the population, AIDS has emerged as an unmitigated worldwide public health catastrophe.

Since Jan. 1, 1981, 182,000 Americans have been diagnosed with AIDS, more than half of whom have died. In Maryland, 3,817 AIDS cases have been reported; of those, 2,400 people have died. Baltimore city reported 1,749 cases, of which 1,113 have been fatal.

Nationwide, an estimated 1 million Americans are infected with the virus that causes AIDS. Worldwide, as many as 30 million people may be carrying the virus. Virtually all these people will eventually come down with AIDS unless a cure is found -- something scientists say may not occur for decades, if ever.

In the face of such numbing statistics governmental lethargy in mobilizing against the threat is appalling. But governments, like individuals, go through predictable stages in reacting to crises. First there is complacency, then panic, then denial; next there is frenzied activity and, finally, resignation.

We have already passed through the first two phases and only now may be emerging from the third. Many people still think AIDS is something that happens to "other people" -- gay men, IV drug users, minorities and the poor. Usually it is not until they are touched personally by the disease that they begin to take the threat seriously. But if the statistics so far are any indication of the human misery and health-care catastrophes in store for the country and the world as a result of AIDS, the doubters won't have to wait much longer.

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