AIDS clinics mark surge in testing since Johnson's announcement

December 03, 1991|By Jonathan Bor

In the 3 1/2 weeks since Magic Johnson told a stunned nation, "It can happen to anybody, even me," unprecedented numbers of people have flocked to testing clinics around Baltimore to learn whether they carry the virus that causes AIDS.

Not only did the basketball idol motivate people who once thought themselves immune to AIDS, but many others who took the test months ago and never showed up for results have suddenly appeared to see if their worst fears proved true.

"People are scared. People are worried," said Andy Rose, head of social work at Baltimore's three sexually transmitted disease clinics. "People have the idea, even if momentarily, that it could happen to anybody. That is probably the main initial message that Magic has gotten out."

Throughout the metropolitan area, the story was much the same.

* At the Chase-Brexton Clinic, a non-profit agency in Mount Vernon, about 200 people have shown up in the last month for blood tests that detect evidence of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), which causes AIDS. That's twice the usual monthly total.

* Baltimore County's three HIV testing sites tested 220 people in November, about double the October total.

* The city's sexually transmitted disease clinic on North Avenue tested 66 people during the week following Magic Johnson's announcement on Nov. 7 -- a 20 percent increase over previous weeks. More recent totals there were not available.

Clinic officials said they had never seen a surge like this, although they predicted it will soon taper off.

Magic Johnson, a star basketball player and cultural hero to many of today's youth, told a surprised nation that he would have to retire from the sport because he was infected with HIV -- a virus that experts believe invariably leads to acquired immune deficiency syndrome.

He insisted he must have contracted the virus while having sexual intercourse with one of the many women he has "accommodated" while touring the nation with the Los Angeles Lakers.

Since his announcement, testing centers continue to test gay men and intravenous drug users in larger numbers than heterosexual men and women.

But officials say they are beginning to see a new influx of people who are worried about their sexual contacts with members of the opposite sex.

"We're seeing people who felt they may have had a heterosexual exposure," said Dr. Randy Berger, who heads AIDS services for Baltimore County.

"We're not really seeing the people who say they are promiscuous. It's people who are worried they haven't been having safe sex, haven't been using condoms."

As expected, officials have not seen a higher-than-normal percentage of people testing positive for the AIDS virus -- just more people asking for the test.

At Chase-Brexton, 10 percent of the people taking the test find out they are positive. In Baltimore County, about 3 percent test positive.

Those figures may be 50 to 100 times higher than the prevalence rate across the general population. Typically, people who seek the test are those who have reason to suspect they placed themselves at risk.

Officials expressed mixed feelings about Magic's ability to convince youngsters to wear condoms or abstain from sex. "Magic Johnson is a guy inner city guys can relate to," Mr. Rose said. "If Magic Johnson can't have an impact on this, I wonder whether anybody can."

Past efforts at changing the sexual habits of inner city youth have met with disappointment, he said. One quarter of the people treated for venereal diseases such as gonorrhea at the city clinics return newly infected within a year.

Although they do not expect Magic to work miracles, many officials said they hope he can inspire a modest proportion of the U.S. population to change its habits.

As a hopeful sign, they pointed to the fact that the number of people getting tested has been increasing slowly over the last several years -- a response, in part, to reports that new drugs can stave off the onset of AIDS when the infection is caught early.

Then, there are people like a suburban public health employee who carried on a three-month sexual relationship with a man who never used a condom. She never asked him about his sexual past and never insisted he use a condom. Finally, she got tested -- a week before Magic's announcement -- when she began to suspect that he may have had sex with other men.

To her relief, she tested negative.

"Why no condom? Because I was crazy," said the woman, who asked not to be identified.

"Because I was in love. I thought he was the right one. No wonder other people catch it."

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