'Even Me, Magic Johnson . . .'

November 09, 1991

Earvin "Magic" Johnson is not alone. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control estimates 1 million to 1.5 million Americans have the HIV virus. Officials from the Agency for International Development told a House committee over six million Africans have the virus, too -- one out of every 40 adult Africans. Under the present state of medical knowledge, every one of them will get AIDS and die.

The AIDS epidemic is going to get much worse in this country before it can diminish. As of Sept. 30, CDC received reports of 195,718 American AIDS cases in a decade, and 126,159 AIDS deaths. That leaves 69,559 active cases, and roughly 20 times as many more Americans who have the virus and are fated to contract AIDS.

If Magic Johnson can get AIDS -- and he will -- anyone can. They don't make an athletic shoe that protects you from it. You can be one of the greatest players who ever graced the game of basketball, make the best passes in the world, play with amazing gifts, skill, intelligence, dedication and joy. You can make $3 million a year to do what you love, and three times as much to endorse harmless products. None of that can save you. A condom with spermicide probably would, or a sterilized needle.

In his announcement of retirement and doom, Magic Johnson brought the same positive attitude that made him a champion on the basketball court. It shocked a million young players in mid-dribble. But he is not slinking off. He means to go out of the world as he came into adulthood, a celebrity and genial instructor. Only instead of saying, "be like me if you can," he is saying, "don't do what I did."

Education has reduced the AIDS contamination among American male homosexuals and somewhat among drug users. Transmission from contaminated blood transfusion has largely stopped. Infection from a health practitioner is statistically infinitesimal. But in Africa, the main transmission is from sex between men and women. And in this country, the number infected through heterosexual sex is an estimated 10 percent of all cases compared to less than 3 percent five years ago. It is easier for men to give it to women than women to men, but 4,321 American men who have the disease got it from women.

Though Magic Johnson may not yet know when, he and the Los Angeles Lakers team physician implied that he contracted HIV from incautious heterosexual activity. So it is as an endorser of safe-sex practices that he will end his public career: "And here I am saying that it can happen to anybody. Even me, Magic Johnson, it could happen to." The safest sexual practice is abstinence, the second safest is faithfulness and the next safest after that is a condom plus spermicide. Magic Johnson is going to be the greatest condom salesman of all time. He is turning his tragedy into instruction, and as a cautionary tale he is fast-breaking into the safe-sex hall of fame.


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