Activists see Laker's effort to warn others as biggest assist


November 08, 1991|By Sue Miller | Sue Miller,Evening Sun Staff 7/8 B

The news that basketball superstar Earvin "Magic" Johnson tested positive for HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, has ripped through Baltimore like a tornado.

People were jolted and it has left them feeling sad, shocked, upset, thoughtful and yes, even thankful.

And, beyond that, many are applauding this "wonderful and benevolent man," who says he is retiring from his life on the hardwood and going out to educate and save others from exposure to a devastating and incurable disease.

The hope is that perhaps people will be willing to listen up now that the risky behavior message about AIDS will be coming from a man who has been a success and a hero to adolescents.

Thankful? Let John Stuban, founder and spokesman for ACT-UP Baltimore, (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), an activist group in the fight against the disease, explain what he meant by that last night.

"Maybe now, Magic Johnson will be the Rock Hudson of the black community," he said, "and that community will face up to the reality of AIDS, realizing that everybody is vulnerable and that something has to be done about HIV transmission."

Referring to the former Los Angeles Lakers point guard's intention to be a spokesman for HIV disease, Stuban said, "I think he can be a champion in saving people from HIV infection the way he was a champion basketball player . . . Adolescent males -- particularly blacks in the inner cities -- are going to see that if he could get HIV, they, too, could get HIV."

State Sen. Paula L. Hollinger said that Johnson, who has promised to mount a "safe-sex" crusade, could have a "tremendous impact" on black males who are a "very fast-growing AIDS population." Hollinger, D-Balto. Co., heads the sub-committee on health for the Governor's Commission on Black Males and is a veteran member of the Governor's Advisory Councils on AIDS and HIV Treatment and Prevention.

Johnson's disclosure will send a message "to lots of people who feel invincible that nobody is invincible" and that this disease can affect even the most invulnerable-appearing people," said Dr. Richard Chaisson, director of the AIDS Service at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

"This is terribly sad for him, just as it is terribly sad for any person to have a potentially life-threatening disease," he said. "And, given his stature in this country, one who is widely recognized and admired, he will bring recognition to the importance of this disease and the depth with which it has affected our country."

Curt Decker, a gay activist, attorney and also a member of the gubernatorial councils, hopes that people won't spend any energy focusing on how Johnson got HIV.

Instead, people should concentrate on the fact that Johnson, as a role model for blacks and especially young blacks, "could be a very important influence."

In talking about the need for prevention, Decker said, Johnson could reach an audience "that has been one of the toughest to get to in terms of education and behavioral change and be a real positive force."

He added, "It's very sad that it has come to this. I don't want to have to educate people on the illnesses of other people. But, unfortunately, we just can't seem to get certain groups in this country to pay attention."

In the past, people who have been well known in the arts and have been identified with the disease, have helped to make the )) public more aware of the HIV epidemic, which is very widespread, said Dr. Jonathan Cohn, who directs the University of Maryland Medical Center's adult AIDS unit.

"Hopefully, in Johnson's case, we will now see very clearly that people who you might look up to and respect for a variety of reasons can often become infected with HIV," he said. "It will challenge the preconceived notion many people still have that there has to be something wrong with the person to become HIV-infected. It will show that those affected can be in the mainstream and successful."

This may put the individual who is in the public eye in an awkward position, Cohn said, "but I think it's useful to our society as a whole. This is a terrible disease and it will be with us for many years to come."

Dr. Lindsay Alger, a UM Medical Center obstetrician and gynecologist with a special interest in AIDS, said, "I believe that Magic Johnson's plans to educate might have a bigger impact on youths in their 20s, who are somewhat more mature and will be more capable about making decisions about their health." Adolescents, on the other hand, she said, tend to do things more on the spur of the moment for the most part.

"I think it would even be more helpful if he could go into schools and address kids as young as 10 years old before they have gotten to the point where they are involved in sex," Alger said.

"We've done this with kids and smoking," Alger said. "Kids who have been told by positive role models not to smoke are less likely to take it up when they get to the age where they might be considering it."

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