Amish mostly avoid AIDS, but they accept its victims

April 24, 1992|By Larry Lewis | Larry Lewis,Knight-Ridder News Service

QUARRYVILLE, Pa. -- Whenever Vivian and Sandy Cantey plan to go out without their two tiny foster daughters, the Amish families of this southern Lancaster County farming town line up to baby-sit.

The black-haired, bubbling 3-year-old and the lithe, shy 4-year-old are exquisitely cute, but there is another, more tragic, dimension to the outburst of extra neighborliness.

Born in Pennsylvania, the girls came into the world with AIDS.

They came to live with the Canteys among the Plain People sects three years ago, when there were virtually no refuges for babies stricken with acquired immune deficiency syndrome.

"We have experienced no rejection," Vivian Cantey said. "I do believe the Amish are more caring."

The Canteys are not Amish.

The quietly independent Amish have gone their own way for 350 years, standing apart from war and most other scourges of the world. But AIDS has become so pervasive that even the isolated Amish, who have for centuries traveled the world looking simply for a place to be left alone, cannot escape the epidemic entirely.

Some members of the Old Order Amish know what AIDS is, and others, living on farms without radio, TV or newspapers, do not. Still, it is not surprising to those who know them that even the Amish aware of the dangers would place compassion before their own fears.

They also would seem to be among the least likely people to be threatened by AIDS. They have no acknowledged homosexuality, their young people socialize and marry only within the sect, drug use is minimal, and promiscuity is rare.

But two Amish men have died from AIDS in Pennsylvania in the past two years. The deaths occurred in the Amish colony in Somerset County, near Pittsburgh. There, hemophilia is a not uncommon genetic defect in the Old Order, and the men who died had contracted AIDS from blood transfusions.

A doctor who treats the Amish said hemophilia was not a problem among those living in Lancaster County, but state officials said that members of the black-clad, pacifist group there were increasingly being surrounded by the ravages of AIDS.

Lancaster County ranks seventh in Pennsylvania in AIDS cases reported, state officials said, trailing Philadelphia and Allegheny, Delaware, Montgomery, Bucks and Berks counties. Since cases began being tabulated in 1981, 161 cases have been reported in a county better known for its old-fashioned lifestyle than its modern problems.

"I hope it never gets loose among our people," said an Amish minister, who acknowledged that there was some premarital sex in the sect, probably a small amount of drug use and some sexual straying. He said he believed the incidence of homosexuality among the Amish was small.

"We're not perfect, at best," said the minister, who would not allow his name to be published because he believes it would render him guilty of the sin of worldly pride.

No one is sure what would happen to the Amish if AIDS gained a foothold in the closed society. Since they do not practice birth control, some say that the virus could blaze through the sect. Others said their monogamous lifestyle would keep the disease from becoming anything more than isolated cases.

The minister said that premarital sex and unwanted pregnancies were a problem among Amish young people in the 1930s and '40s but that the problem dwindled after members won back the right to build and run their own schools.

Now, he said, only about one Amish girl a year in Lancaster County gets pregnant before her wedding.

The Amish are widely known for accepting what life hands them, but the son of an Amish family in Georgetown in southern Lancaster County departed a little from tradition after he learned he was due for heart-bypass surgery. He visited the hospital several times, donating his own blood for the operation.

The blood that carries the AIDS virus also is an important consideration for the Cantey family. The foster daughters play freely with other children, and the only caution is that no one is to touch any of their blood if there were an accident.

Mr. Cantey is a driver for the Amish, who do not drive. On Mondays, when Mr. Cantey usually drives the Amish to do their banking, the girls almost always go along.

"We're gone four or five hours," Mr. Cantey said. "No problem."

Roger Simon is on vacation. His column will resume May 6.

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