Louganis' virus secrecy gets no sympathy here

March 01, 1995|By PHIL JACKMAN

The two deadliest known viruses in the world carry the names Marburg and Ebola. The former, named for a town in Germany where it first attacked society, kills one in four people it infects. Ebola, named for a river in Central Africa, is the big guy. It cuts down nine in 10 and doesn't waste time (10 days).

Ebola has three subtypes: Ebola Zaire and Ebola Sudan, which figures because these countries have huge sections in the Rain Forest of Africa, and Ebola Reston. Yes, that Reston, the one in Virginia located 25 miles west of Washington.

Remember these facts as we change the subject for a minute to Greg Louganis.

In more than a dozen brushes with the nonpareil of the diving bell at national and international competitions and in interview sessions, Greg struck us as a quiet, introspective, intelligent and dedicated man-child athlete. What he did away from the limelight was his own business.

That business happened to include homosexual activity and, in time, Louganis contacted HIV, the cause of AIDS. His lover died of the disease a few years after Greg had tested positive for HIV.

The test came prior to the 1988 Olympics in Seoul and, manned with the knowledge he was under no legal obligation to reveal his condition to anyone, Louganis remained quiet until late 1993.

It was at the Summer Games in South Korea, though, that the diver smacked the back of his head on the 3-meter board during competition, causing a cut on his scalp. The cut bled into the pool, of course. Emerging from the water, Louganis' head was touched by a few people before Dr. James Puffer stiched him up bare-handed in order for Greg to complete his dives in the semifinals of the springboard event.

All this has been well documented in the past several days since the story broke and Louganis appeared on ABC's "20/20" and announced he has AIDS to interviewer Barbara Walters and the world. Instantly, the so-called opinion-makers scurried to the defense of the former great Olympian.

While it's arguable whether Louganis should have informed the team doctor of the U.S. diving team that he had shown up HIV-positive prior to Seoul, it's indefensible that he didn't inform Dr. Puffer and the others as they allowed his blood on their caring hands.

Many, while trying to rouse pity for Louganis, theorized that his condition might have slipped his mind in this moment of terror. Omigosh, I'm losing a gold medal. They propose that poor Greg be pitied instead of being vilified for his gross inaction. Incidentally, he finally did inform Dr. Puffer of his condition

recently, a mere six years late.

Worse than all the bleeding-hearts stuff as these admissions come tumbling out simultaneous with the release of his autobiography "Breaking the Surface" this week have been the utterances springing forth from the International Olympic Committee.

The IOC's medical commission chairmanm, Prince Alexandre de Merode of Belgian pointed out that transmitting HIV during participation in sports is "extremely low" as though it's an undeniable fact. Then he added there was "absolutely no reason" for Louganis to have informed officials (and the doctor): "It wouldn't have changed anything. People would have been unjustifiably afraid. I believe it is better if nobody knows."

Quick, somebody air mail-special a copy of Richard Preston's book "The Hot Zone" to His Grace. The best-seller is must reading for everyone, especially those who are non-squeamish about what could turn out to be their obituary.

It's about viruses, their origins, their "capabilities" and what a myth it is for us to be spoon-fed the notion that the transmission of AIDS carries astronomical odds if unsafe sex between males, dirty hypodermic needles and tainted blood are avoided.

The book says "HIV is classified as an emerging Level 2 agent (Level 4 is the Apocalypse) from the rain forests of Africa. Exact origin unknown. Now amplifying globally, its ultimate level of penetration into the human species is completely unknown."

Repeat, "completely unknown."

So far at least, a healthy person situated across the room from a person with AIDS would not be infected because the virus is not airborne; it's transmitted via blood and bodily fluids. But, as author Preston hints, what's to say the virus won't find a way to transmit via droplets in the air, just like influenza?

While constantly replicating, viruses can be hunting out various other forms of transportation from one host (carrier) to another. A doctor in South Africa, after working with the Ebola Zaire strain, said, "AIDS is child's play compared with this." But who's to say it will stay that way?

Viruses, science tells us, don't depart (vanish), they hide. Some are to the point where they are no longer simple parasites but predators.

And how did a virus from Africa end up in Reston, Va.? Via experimental monkeys shipped from the Philippines.

It's clear that simple embarrassment could never qualify as sufficient excuse for Louganis to keep quiet way back when. For him to put people at risk and the far-reaching repercussions that could have led to were ludicrous. And waiting to come clean until coming out with a book is worse.

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