Federal Campaign to Combat Aids
Exaggerated Heterosexual Risks

  by Steve Miller
  copyright 1996, Electric Nevada

Federal health officials are now admitting their 10-year campaign to frighten heterosexual Americans with the threat of AIDS was intentionally alarmist and deceptive.  
And the new candor has members of Nevada's AIDS community apprehensive that public support for federal funding of anti-AIDS programs may decline.
"My concern," one Nevada man with AIDS told Electric Nevada, "is that if people had a choice between straight women and gay men, they'd give the funding to the straight women and just as soon that the gay men just go ahead and die."
But, according to some scientists, that has turned out to be precisely the consequence of the anyone-can-get-AIDS public relations offensive sponsored by the federal government, and dominating U.S. mass media, since 1986.
Not only, they say, was the campaign launched by the federal Center for Disease Control fundamentally dishonest -- greatly exaggerating the actual risks faced by people who weren't homosexuals or intravenous drug users -- but it also effectively ensured that most AIDS-prevention funds will not go where most needed.
"You can't stop this epidemic if you spend the money where the epidemic hasn't happened," Ron Stall, associate professor of epidemiology at the University of California at San Francisco, told Wall Street Journal reporters Amanda Bennett and Anita Sharpe.
And government figures now show that is what happened.
While it is technically true that any human being can be infected by AIDS, the actual risk from a single act of sex for most heterosexuals is smaller than the risk of getting hit by lightning, researchers say. And even though epidemiological studies had made this clear to U.S. Public Health officials, those same officials then made conscious decisions to launch a massive public relations and advertising campaign, misleading the general public on that key point.
Today acknowledging the government campaign exaggerated the risks to average Americans, the U.S. Public Health officials justify the deception as something they believed would do good in the long run.
"As long as this was seen as a gay disease or, even worse, a disease of drug abusers, that pushed the disease way down the ladder" of people's priorities, CDC virologist Walter Dowdle told the Wall Street Journal in an interview published May 1.
The first major CDC misinformation released to the public was an unsigned paper appearing in the journal Public Health Reports, following the Public Health Service Coolfont conference in June 1986, held in Berkely Springs, West Virginia.
The report, which was unsigned, lumped various unresearched categories called "undetermineds" -- including people who had died before being interviewed or simply had not been interviewed yet -- in with heterosexuals to provide a highly questionable statistical projection of probable future heterosexual AIDS victims.
According to the CDC's Chief Statistician, Dr. W. Meade Morgan, the projection was a "worst case" scenario. And he told author Michael Fumento that if the media had called for verification, "we'd set them straight."
However, said Fumento, writing in The Myth of Heterosexual AIDS, "calling for verification .. is something the media almost universally neglected to do.
"Armed with statistical 'proof' of a dramatic increase in heterosexual cases," wrote Fumento, "the alarmists and the media went wild."
For example Oprah Winfrey was announcing on her TV show -- the most popular daytime show in America -- that "research studies now project that one in five -- listen to me, hard to believe -- one in five heterosexuals could be dead from AIDS at the end of the next three years. That's by 1990. One in five. It is no longer just a gay disease, believe me."
The cover of Life had announced, "Now No One is Safe from AIDS." U.S. News & World Report declared, "the disease of them suddenly is the disease of us. ... finding fertile growth among heterosexuals."
And then-Surgeon General C. Everett Koop declared the disease to be "the biggest threat to health this nation has ever faced."
"AIDS cases over all," said Koop, are "going to increase nine-fold ... between now and 1990. But among heterosexuals there are going to be 20 times as many cases so that perhaps 10 per cent of the patients will be heterosexual."
But it still wasn't enough public alarm to suit virologist Dowdle and some of his CDC colleagues.
In early 1987, said Dowdle, he and other CDC officials were still being frustrated by TV networks' refusal to run ads advocating the use of condoms, and by Reagan White House objections to the ads on moral grounds. Focus-group polling by the giant advertising firm of Ogilvy & Mather for the CDC had also established that most people weren't that concerned about AIDS. This included high-risk gays, who were continuing unprotected sex.
So the federal health officials decided to raise the profile of the disease
Top of page




another notch. They also wanted to change heterosexual Americans' attitudes.
"We thought we should get people talking about AIDS and we wanted to reduce the stigma," says Paula Van Ness, who had come to the CDC from the Los Angeles AIDS Project.
Eventually Ogilvy & Mather was paid over $6 million for a high-powered national advertising campaign which intentionally blurred the lines to make heterosexual Americans appear to be more at risk from AIDS than actually was the case.
Launched in October, 1987 and pitched to a general audience, the campaign featured 38 TV spots, eight radio spots and six print ads. The campaign avoided specific advice on how to avoid AIDS (i.e., avoid anal sex and IV drug-needle sharing) and instead focused on the universality of the disease.
Images were carefully presented to foster the belief that everyone was at risk. A CDC brochure featured a blonde middle-aged woman with AIDS, saying "AIDS is not a 'we' 'they' disease, it's an 'us' disease." It did not explain she was an intravenous drug user who had shared AIDS-tainted needles.
Similarly, the son of a rural Baptist minister featured in a public-service ad said, "If I can get AIDS, anyone can," providing the keynote of the campaign. But in actuality the minister's son was gay, and had been infected through high-risk sex practices.
The CDC/Ogilvy & Mather campaign won awards and was heavily reinforced by hundreds of stories in national print and television media. Reporters and editors, talk shows and magazines, continued to find the threat of heterosexual AIDS a dramatic aid to circulation and ratings.
"Clearly, the Public Health Service misled the media, even if it was just as clear that the media had wanted to be misled," says Fumento, a reporter on science issues for Investor's Business Daily in Los Angeles.
By early 1988, according to polls reported in the May-June issue of Public Opinion magazine, 8 in 10 Americans believed that AIDS "will become widespread in the heterosexual population," while only 22 percent believed that the media had exaggerated the health risk involved with AIDS.
In the years since, millions of frightened low-risk heterosexuals have sought testing for AIDS, using up large sums of the available AIDS-prevention money just to discover they weren't infected.
In 1994, for example, 2.4 million tests were given at government-funded sites, but 87 percent of the tests were given to individuals in low-risk categories -- categories other than homosexual or bisexual men, or IV drug users.
In 1995, AIDS testing, the single largest prevention program of the federal Center for Disease Control, the federal government's point man in the war against AIDS, cost $136 million of the agency's total $589 million budget.
Yet Eric Goosby, director of the HIV/AIDS Policy Office of the U.S. Public Health Service, which oversees the CDC, says the program "was not efficient or effective in picking up HIV-positive people."
And while homosexuals and intravenous drug users now account for 83% of all AIDS cases reported in the U.S., the federal AIDS-prevention budget still is not targeted to homosexual and bisexual men, or IV drug users.
State programs also have been directed largely toward low risk groups. Patricia Franks, a UCSF researcher headed a study of California AIDS spending between 1989 and 1992. According to the study, while 85 percent of the state's AIDS cases were concentrated among men who had sex with men, programs targeting this groups got only 9 percent of all state AIDS prevention dollars.
"It's hard to take money away from groups already receiving grants," the director of the California Office of Aids, Wayne Sauseda, told the Wall Street Journal.
In the state's last three-year funding cycle, he said, "we were .. deluged by proposals from low- and no-risk population groups.
"We got two proposals for every one from a high-risk group."
Here in Nevada, AIDS activists are ambivalent about the CDC's new candor. On the one hand, new drugs that give the most promise of fighting AIDS are very expensive, and could become more available if federal resources were targeted to people with AIDS.
But on the other hand, they fear that the public will not support funding for AIDS prevention and research if most heterosexuals believe they are only minimally at risk.
As an example, one AIDS activist said, here in Nevada the state is willing to spend allocated federal funds on AIDS-related problems, but itself refuses to allocate any state monies for those purposes.
"There's never been enough money towards AIDS care, or AIDS research or AIDS education," from the State of Nevada, he said.
"They have never put in a penny toward those goals."


Want to share your opinion? Electric Nevada's comment page is open!

Back to Electric Nevada's front Page