Block that knee jerk!

Wiley A. Hall 3rd

November 14, 1991|By Wiley A. Hall 3rd

It is always refreshing when someone in public life finds the courage and good sense to cut through all of the nonsense.

Today's hero is Dr. Richard T. Johnson, a professor at Johns Hopkins Medical School and the chairman of the Governor's Council on HIV Prevention and Treatment.

Tuesday, Johnson's group dared to tell our do-it-now, shoot-from-the hip governor that the mandatory testing of health officials for AIDS is a waste of time and money.

"It is a fallacy," said Johnson. "There is no scientific basis for mandatory testing and it's very expensive. So it's fiscally irresponsible and scientifically unnecessary. . . ."

"But," conceded the good doctor, "there is a lot of emotion attached to it."

Indeed. Mandatory AIDS testing is the In-thing right now. No sooner had basketball great Earvin "Magic" Johnson announced that he had contracted the HIV virus, for instance, than people began calling for mandatory testing of all NBA players.

Was there any suggestion that Magic had contracted the disease from a fellow player?

Of course not.

Is there serious concern that an NBA player carrying the virus might inadvertently pass it on by sweating on an opponent during the course of a game?

Don't be ridiculous.

But mandatory testing is the knee-jerk solution of choice.

It is particularly popular among politicians who want to appear to act decisively against an epidemic that is at the same time scary, lethal and mysterious -- an epidemic that appears particularly resistant to knee-jerk solutions.

Gov. William Donald Schaefer has been adamant about mandatory testing since early this year, when it was disclosed that a Johns Hopkins Hospital surgeon and two dentists at the Maryland Penitentiary had died of the disease.

Those deaths raised serious concerns about the incidence of AIDS within the health-care community and about the possibility that an infected worker or patient could pass it on.

Unfortunately, Schaefer has latched onto mandatory testing and cannot be persuaded to let it go.

He has vowed to introduce legislation next January that would require testing for all health-care workers and their patients who are engaged in high-risk medical procedures. If the legislation is approved, Maryland would have one of the most stringent such laws in the country.

But the Centers for Disease Control has said mandatory testing would neither protect nor reassure anyone. CDC guidelines recommend that health-care workers practice standard precautions against infections and have themselves tested voluntarily if they believe they are at risk.

Louis W. Sullivan, the U.S. secretary of health and human services, has said that mandatory testing would "send a false message to our citizens".

The American Medical Association has warned that it might even be counterproductive.

And now, Schaefer's own advisory panel has rejected the idea on the grounds that it would be "fiscally irresponsible and scientifically unnecessary."

You would think that if nothing else, those two words -- "expensive" and "unnecessary" -- would be enough to kill any proposal these days.

State officials, after all, are trying to cope with a $450 million budget deficit by laying off state employees, slicing programs and possibly raising taxes.

But nooo!

Governor Schaefer likes mandatory testing and, by golly, he is going to have it. He fired his last advisory panel last April, in part, because it refused to support his mania for mandatory testing and now his second crop of handpicked advisers also has refused to accept his advice.

The governor's current AIDS prevention advisory panel is said to be preparing recommendations that it believes would work, including such politically explosive solutions as dispensing condoms and providing sterile syringes to drug users.

The first panel favored similar approaches shortly before Schaefer shoved it out the door, complaining with no apparent irony that he wanted solutions that gave people "hope."

Funny isn't it?

I already have hope that we might someday find a way to survive this epidemic.

But first we'll have to survive the politicians.

And about that, I'm not too sure.

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