Good AIDS and bad AIDS

Randy Shilts

December 20, 1991|By Randy Shilts

ANYONE who has a heart can sympathize with the anguish of the Bergalis family over the recent death of their daughter Kimberly.

Like so many other victims of AIDS, Kimberly died too young.

No AIDS sufferer in the United States dominated the AIDS policy debate this year the way Bergalis did. But the story of Bergalis and her family became largely a tale of anger.

The Bergalises are angry that their daughter was infected with this horrible virus. I understand that. I'm angry too that I've had to watch half of my friends waste away and die miserable deaths from this disease.

What has made the Bergalises anger different is that it has been so poorly informed. The Bergalises have been angry at the late Dr. David J. Acer, the Florida dentist they believe infected their daughter while she was being treated.

They have been angry at politicians whom they think have not moved quickly enough on the issue of HIV-infected health-care workers. That's where their anger ends.

If they knew more about the AIDS epidemic, they would realize there are far greater villains.

One reason Kimberly Bergalis died is that we don't have better treatments for this disease. We don't have better treatments because for the better part of a decade the government did as little as possible to fight the epidemic.

As president, Ronald Reagan found it difficult even to utter the word AIDS. President Bush has shown only slightly more concern.

What is also troubling about the Bergalises' anger is that they do not seem to acknowledge the suffering of others.

When Kimberly Bergalis spoke before Congress in October to lobby for legislation that would require testing of health-care workers for the virus that causes AIDS, she mentioned how unfair it was that she had to suffer from AIDS even though she "didn't do anything wrong."

With those words she seemed to be separating those who don't deserve AIDS from those who do. These were troubling words.

Gay men express their love differently from the majority, it's true, but those who contracted AIDS didn't do anything "wrong." People who are infected by HIV from dirty needles usually committed the "wrong" of being black or Hispanic in a society that offers them largely despair and poverty. Their plight is no less tragic than Bergalis'.

What the Bergalises need to recognize is that AIDS has spread without a concerted government response because so many Americans believe that only people who have done something "wrong" get the disease.

Their daughter -- and many others -- might be alive now if those fighting AIDS did not also have to fight this prejudice. It's appalling that AIDS is considered a serious disease only when it strikes a young woman or a star basketball player.

In their anger and pain the Bergalises focused national attention on the one aspect of the epidemic that affected them -- the apparent transfer of HIV from a health-care worker.

Yes, it is tragic that Kimberly Bergalis died from AIDS. But there are 1 million other HIV-infected Americans. Only five of these million are thought to have contracted HIV from their health-care workers. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands have contracted the disease sexually or through IV drug use.

It is thousands of times more tragic that the United States lacks adequate prevention programs in these arenas even today.

The lesson from the sad story of Kimberly Bergalis is that we will not fight AIDS by fighting each other. The answer for AIDS will come only when Americans extend to all people dying of AIDS the same compassion Kimberly Bergalis received.

Randy Shilts, author of "And the Band Played On," is writing a C book about gays in the military.

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