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.|
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.
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