Myths help build walls

September 06, 1994|By H. B. Johnson

O.K., ONE more time: You cannot catch AIDS by hugging and kissing. You cannot catch AIDS by holding hands. You cannot catch AIDS from your favorite restaurant simply because an AIDS sufferer also dines there. You cannot catch AIDS by sharing a hat, a coat, your hopes and dreams. You cannot catch AIDS by falling in love.

Why mention all of these ways you cannot catch AIDS? Because there are ignorant people out there who persist in spreading such myths.

These myths help build walls between us, instead of bridges of understanding -- bridges that you and I need to cross to help society deal with this plague.

There is a "no-risk" group of AIDS sufferers out there, people whose illness cannot be explained. They have no history of AIDS-related lifestyles and no apparent exposure to HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. But they are just a tiny number of all AIDS cases.

That group aside, doctors say there are only two proven ways to get HIV -- through infected blood or semen. That there is a link between individual behavior and infection is crucial to our thinking about AIDS.

With no cure immediately on the horizon, it is our duty as a society to work hard to stop the spread of the disease. We must remain vigilant in promoting safe sex practices and the distribution of clean needles to intravenous drug users.

Health officials in San Francisco are alarmed that new cases of HIV infection have increased slightly after a steady downturn in that city. It's apparently the result of a new generation of homosexual males who wrongly think the risk of infection is small.

Have they forgotten the thousands who have died from the plague? Do they think they're immune because they are young?

Of course, not everyone who gets the disease does so as a result of personal actions. A person raped by an infected person is not at fault. Nor is an unsuspecting recipient of contaminated blood -- such as many hemophiliacs.

It has been 14 years since we found AIDS in our midst. Fourteen long years of fear, suffering, death and myths. AIDS contamination has been blamed on everything from Haitian boat people to a little monkey in Africa.

The time for myth-making and blaming others is over. We need to destroy the myths surrounding AIDS that help perpetuate a class of people shamed by their condition.

Also, we must demand that medicine bring all of its forces to bear on finding a cure. This plague, if it is to be destroyed, must cease to serve any function in medical competition, social myths or political games. The destruction of its myths is a good place to start.

H. B. Johnson Jr., a poet and playwright, writes periodically on AIDS for the Other Voices page.

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