Johnson's case throws spotlight back on AIDS Activists say fight may be renewed

November 08, 1991|By Randy Shilts | Randy Shilts,San Francisco Chronicle

With the national spotlight abruptly cast on AIDS again by Magic Johnson's disclosure that he is infected with the virus, advocates for AIDS causes expressed hopes that renewed attention might mobilize action against the epidemic.

The announcement by the basketball superstar could not have come at a more crucial moment in the AIDS epidemic.

The past year has been the worst of times for those organizing to fight the disease. The media have grown bored with covering AIDS, new government actions against the epidemic have ground to a halt and the public has grown apathetic.

"This is a wake-up call," said Steve Feeback of the National Task Force on AIDS Prevention, a San Francisco-based group that promotes AIDS education for young blacks.

"We know the message will sink in now with America, especially young people," he said. Although the news was sad, he said, "it's going to be a very positive development for the [fight against the] epidemic."

Since AIDS was first detected, Magic Johnson is the biggest celebrity to acknowledge publicly that he is infected by HIV.

The only person of comparable fame was the late actor Rock Hudson, who revealed that he had AIDS in July 1985. That announcement galvanized public attention to a disease that had been largely ignored before then. The publicity surrounding Hudson's battle with AIDS resulted in intense media attention and the infusion of hundreds of millions of dollars in government financing into AIDS research and prevention.

Johnson's disclosure could prove to be an even more compelling development. Johnson comes from the sports world, the very bastion of male heterosexuality and an arena that carries unique currency with mainstream America.

Moreover, Johnson has pledged to become a public spokesman for the fight against AIDS.

Hudson, who was already seriously ill when he disclosed his disease, never made a public statement or appearance concerning the epidemic except for a brief written declaration that he had AIDS. Johnson, who is healthy, will probably be able to play a role in educating the public for many years.

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