Play, Magic, and dish off some myths

Ken Rosenthal

January 31, 1992|By Ken Rosenthal

Magic Johnson wants to educate the world about the AIDS virus. But it's impossible if people refuse to consider the evidence, change their thinking, abandon their fear.

The chance of Magic infecting another player with HIV in a game of basketball? Nil, zero, infinitesimal, according to one AIDS expert after another.

For a confused public, the message could not be any clearer. But with AIDS, as with any plague through the ages, the tendency is to panic. To overreact. To smear.

So here's Magic, intending to make a bold statement in the NBA All-Star Game next weekend and the Olympics this summer. And here's history, repeating itself again.

"There just seems to be an incredible amount of hysteria that's misplaced about how you get an HIV infection," said Dr. John Bartlett, chief of infectious diseases at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.

"It's a bad disease. I can understand the worries people have. But this is not how you get it. Nobody's going to get it playing basketball. That's not a risk."

The AIDS experts are in almost unanimous agreement on this. They're trying to save lives, not endanger them. Rest assured, they've seen enough tragedy in the 11-year history of the disease.

So here's Magic, symbolizing hope for the doctors and the social workers, the victims and their families. Here's Magic, proving life doesn't end the moment you get HIV.

It's not unfair to question the risk, for this is unchartered territory. Indeed, we still know too little about HIV, much less the rate of transmission in contact sports.

That said, Magic still must play. The risk appears so remote, the greater danger is adding to the ignorance and prejudice surrounding this disease.

According to doctors, the only way Magic can pass the virus is if he exchanges blood with another player through an open wound -- and even then, it's doubtful the player will be infected.

The virus is "just not very effectively transmitted," Bartlett said, citing evidence from studies of . health-care workers who frequently are exposed to spilled blood from HIV patients.

HIV does not pass through sweat, saliva or touch, and Bartlett said it's easier to contract a virus like Hepatitis-B through an exchange of blood, "but you never hear about those types of things."

Bartlett said the rate of HIV transmission for workers who accidentally stick themselves with hypodermic needles that have been used on infected patients is only three in 1,000.

What's more, those workers appear at greater risk than basketball players, even though they wear protective clothing as opposed to tank tops and shorts.

A needle can transfer the virus into tissue beneath the skin, but if Magic bled into another player's open wound, the contact probably would be superficial enough to deem it irrelevant.

Besides, Bartlett said evidence indicates that a blood-to-blood transmission is most likely to occur when a patient is in a late stage of the disease -- AIDS itself.

Magic has not reached that point. He tested positive for HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. If he was suffering from AIDS, he could not play basketball. It's as simple as that.

"This is the wrong place for people to focus their attention," Bartlett said. "A lot of things about AIDS deserve attention. This isn't one of them."

Consider: Football is a rougher sport than basketball, but last week NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue quoted doctors saying a player was more likely to be paralyzed running into a goalpost than he is to contract the AIDS virus on a football field.

Consider: "People with plagues have been vilified through the ages," Dr. David Rogers, vice chairman of the National Commission on AIDS, told the Los Angeles Times. "It, to me, is kind of a sad witch hunt. It's a tragedy. It's a senseless kind of fear."

The outcry, of course, focuses more on the Olympics than the NBA All-Star Game, the international competition rather than the fashionable exhibition. Magic isn't certain to play in Barcelona, but if he does, every precaution will be taken.

After his retirement last November, FIBA, the international basketball federation, passed a rule saying any player who is cut during a game must be removed until the bleeding stops.

The rule makes sense, if only to alleviate concern. But FIBA wants Johnson to play. The NBA wants Johnson to play. The doctors and the social workers, the victims and their families, they all want Johnson to play.

This is important.

Too important to dismiss.

"I think it would be wonderful," said Jonathan Zenilman, an associate professor in infectious diseases at Hopkins who labeled the risk "essentially zero."

"A lot of people when they're told they're HIV-positive think their life is over, especially people in the minority community. Seeing him here, HIV-positive, playing basketball, that's a very positive statement.

"It would be even more positive if he was accepted."

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