Governor is pushing 'contact tracing' of AIDS patients Schaefer also urging mandatory testing of health-care workers.

January 23, 1992|By Laura Lippman

ANNAPOLIS -- Gov. William Donald Schaefer wants HIV infection treated like any other communicable disease, enabling health workers to trace a patient's sex partners and others who may have been exposed to the virus that causes AIDS.

While the governor's bill would designate at least five confidential testing centers, those who test positive at other sites would be treated as if they had gonorrhea, hepatitis, meningitis, typhoid, syphilis or tuberculosis.

This means health workers would follow "contact tracing" procedures -- notifying those who had sex, shared needles or otherwise exchanged body fluids with an HIV-infected patient. Currently, all test results are confidential.

The bill is one of several controversial AIDS measures before the legislature this year.

The governor, through the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, also is pushing for mandatory testing of health workers and patients.

Two senators have introduced similar testing bills.

While the high cost may doom the mandatory testing bills, officials say the cost of reclassifying HIV infection as a communicable disease is negligible. That could improve its chances in this cost-conscious session.

Eighteen states now have similar laws, the governor's lobbyist, David S. Iannucci, said yesterday.

He said the procedures in the bill also would provide more accurate statistics about HIV infection in Maryland.

But Dr. Alfred Saah, an epidemiologist and former member of the governor's task force on AIDS, said the proposed legislation is "ludicrous."

"I don't know what's in his mind," Dr. Saah said of the governor. "All people want to do with these damn bills is punish people with HIV. . . . It's cheap politics."

Dr. Saah said the law would have little impact on the AIDS problem in Maryland because it is difficult to apply "contact tracing" to HIV infection.

At the same time, he said, the legislation could discourage some people from being tested, even with the existence of confidential sites.

"The surest way to get them not tested is to have this contact tracing," he said. "You'll undo everything Magic Johnson did."

Under current Maryland law, the name of anyone who tests positive for a communicable disease is reported to the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, which then warns those who might be infected. No names are used, said Nelson J. Sabatini, secretary of the department.

Even with current HIV testing procedures, the secretary said, few patients seem concerned with confidentiality.

"Almost no one comes in seeking anonymity," he said. "Most people come in and give their names and identify themselves. . . . The time is right to start treating AIDS like other communicable diseases."

The secretary's department will introduce the mandatory-testing bill for health-care workers and patients, but there are no details available yet about its cost and the number of people who would be tested.

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