MEDIA WATCH

Villains, and victims of AIDS

George Bain April 20 1987
MEDIA WATCH

Villains, and victims of AIDS

George Bain April 20 1987

Villains, and victims of AIDS

MEDIA WATCH

George Bain

In the March 7 issue of The Spectator, London, Auberon Waugh in his weekly column denounced what he called The Big Lie about AIDS—“the pretence that there is any evidence to suggest it could ever become a major health hazard in the Western world outside the ‘high-risk’ areas of homosexuals, heterosexual sodomists, drug abusers and recipients of blood through plasma or conventional transfusion.” True? That did not accord with what I had read and heard elsewhere but, while Waugh’s arguments often are outrageous, so far as I have been able to tell his facts are good.

What he based himself on here were American figures that said that 85 per cent of AIDS victims were male homosexuals, whereas only four per cent were infected through normal heterosexual intercourse, a figure he implied might even be skewed to the high side, given the estimate by some authorities, whom he did not identify, that 20 per cent of American women had participated in anal intercourse. In short, Waugh said, “the threat to ordinary heterosexuals is almost non-existent.”

In the next issue, he was joined by the editors of The Spectator in a lead editorial that began with the flat statement: “The government’s antiAIDS campaign is falsely based.” It referred to what it said was now acknowledged by Norman Fowler, the health minister, that “existing figures show that the disease afflicts homosexuals and drug abusers almost alone. There is a heterosexual risk, but it is infinitesimally [small].” The Spectator’s editorial thesis was very much bound up with its objections to “policies designed to promote homosexuality in schools [and] glorify the homosexual lifestyle” that have been adopted by some local councils dominated by the so-called “loony left” in the greater London area.

Now, the editorial said, on top of that, officialdom at another level was being “evasive to the point of dishonesty about who is most likely to get the disease.” The purpose to be inferred from this alleged deception was one of deflecting attention from homosexuality, and any moral question about it, by blurring “the close connection between AIDS and homosexuality.” That

is a view that can be dismissed as simply anti-homosexual, but not so easily if one refers only to the figures.

The ones for Canada are not much different. Of 947 AIDS cases reported from the time statistics-keeping began in February, 1982, until late March this year, 82.5 per cent were of homosexual or bisexual men. Recipients of blood transfusions accounted for 3.6 per cent and intravenous drug-abusers another 0.3 per cent. Persons who had “a heterosexual partner who was a high-risk individual,” and persons from such endemic areas as Haiti and Central Africa, who “most likely” were exposed to a heterosexual contact, together made up 8.8 per cent. That left 1.9 per cent, who were infants infected before birth, and 2.9 per cent of “other” or “unknown” cause. Again, on those figures, AIDS could be argued to be a predominantly homosexual disease.

One thesis related to objections to 'policies to promote homosexuality in schools [and] glorify the homosexual lifestyle’

Now we come to an earlier report— from Le Monde service carried by the Manchester Guardian Weekly, Jan. 11, 1987. A Le Monde correspondent, Philippe Boggio, wrote about Kinshasa, Zaire, the tawdry “megalopolis of love,” as he called it, where seven per cent of the population, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), are probably carriers and do not know it. That is not to say Kinshasans don’t know about AIDS; suddenly, slim women “who only yesterday were admired because the whites liked them” have gone out of fashion.

Between 1983 and 1984, prostitutes working white night clubs were induced to give blood tests for a fee equal to a night’s work. Twenty-seven per cent proved blood-positive. In Kinshasa, then, AIDS is not a homosexual disease. Alongside the story on Kin, as it is called, the Guardian ran an interview with Dr. Jonathan Mann, of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, Ga., now attached to the WHO AIDS program in Geneva. The interviewer, Jean-Yves Nau, also of Le Monde, asked what were the uniquely African features of the epidemic. The

doctor said that, as everywhere, the disease was sexually transmitted—“by direct contact with infected blood and perinatal transmission between mother and child.”

However, there were differences, one of them that heterosexual transmission dominated. “This is not to say there is no homosexual transmission, but this is quite minimal,” Dr. Mann said. “This is why there are as many female clinical seropositive cases. Moreover, there are very few drug addicts in Africa who inject themselves intravenously.”

How, then, does it happen that a sophisticated London journal argues, with the support of presumably reliable statistics, that “the disease afflicts homosexuals and drug abusers almost alone,” and that medical observation reported elsewhere leads to the conclusion in Central Africa, where the spread is epidemic, that homosexuality and drug-abuse are negligible factors?

If the figures are about one-to-one between the sexes in Central Africa, why the large discrepancy elsewhere? After some asking around, I found myself talking to Dr. Kate Hankins, a Montreal-based epidemiologist, and a member of the National Advisory Committee on AIDS to Health and Welfare Minister Jake Epp. In essence, the explanation of the contradiction that was bothering me is this: the virus first explodes within the sub-group in the population through which it was introduced. In North America, and obviously in Britain, this was in the homosexual community—so much so that in the beginning AIDS was identified, complacently, as “the gay disease.”

Not so in Italy and Spain, however. There, it entered through addicts, who passed infected blood through re-used needle syringes; AIDS there, therefore, initially was more an intravenous drug-abusers’ disease. In time, then, are the figures going to level themselves out and apply more evenly across the population? It may take a long time, Hankins said, but “there is a pretty good understanding in the United States that it will evolve to a more African-type setting in general.”

What qualifies this as a media commentary is simply this: it is a part of the essential arrogance of the journalist to say, “If I have just learned this, then it must be news to thousands of others.”