HEALTH

The growing Canadian AIDS alarm

Shona McKay July 11 1983
HEALTH

The growing Canadian AIDS alarm

Shona McKay July 11 1983

The growing Canadian AIDS alarm

HEALTH

Shona McKay

Doctors at Montreal’s Ste. Justine Hospital were mystified last year when a seven-month-old infant, her body wracked by diseases against which she had no defence, died in their care. Her Haitian mother had died shortly after giving birth, the victim of tuberculosis and a rare form of cancer that spread with unusual speed. At the time, doctors considered the baby’s death to be a case of unexplained immunologic breakdown, a syndrome typically seen once or twice a year in the 645-bed children’s hospital. However, within a few months three other infants exhibiting the same symptoms—failure to thrive, severe pneumonia and central nervous system disorders—lay dying at Ste. Justine. As the babies’ diseases progressed, the hospital’s medical staff realized that they faced a new phenomenon. Last week, in a paper presented in Quebec City to the annual meeting of the Canadian Pediatric Society, Montreal immunologist Normand Lapointe officially confirmed that the four infants had died as the result of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS).

“In my 17 years as an immunologist,” said Lapointe, “I have never before encountered a syndrome that affected so many patients so quickly. AIDS has a

100-per-cent mortality rate in children. It is a microepidemic.” Lapointe’s statement underscored fears in Canada that the horrifying disease, which has produced a form of hysteria in communities in the United States where it has been spreading rapidly, is poised to reach epidemic proportions in this country.

Doctors first identified AIDS just over two years ago among homosexual males in New York City, San Francisco and Los Angeles. Since then its spread and its toll have been devastating.

To date, the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta has recorded 1,641 cases, 644 of them fatal. More deaths apparently are inevitable.

Although recent data show that the incidence of the disease may be levelling off in New York, where half of all AIDS deaths have occurred, there are strong signs that the deadly affliction is still spreading in Canada.

Apart from the four children in Montreal, the federal health department announced

last week that at least 17 people have died from AIDS across Canada since February, 1982. Currently, 29 Canadians are known to have been stricken by the disease, but the real figure could be higher: except in British Columbia, doctors are not obliged to report cases of AIDS to health authorities. “There is a growing concern within the medical community,” says Dr. Stanley Read, a University of Toronto specialist in infectious diseases who is currently involved in the treatment of five AIDS patients at Toronto General

Hospital.

The cause and even 3 the nature of AIDS remain a mystery. In effect, the disease breaks down the natural system of immunities, leaving the body vulnerable to a Pandora’s box of diseases. Early symptoms include swollen lymph glands, fatigue, night sweats, diarrhea and persistent colds or flu. In late stages AIDS victims often encounter parasites, fungi, a deadly type of pneumonia called Pneumocystis carinii and Kaposi’s sarcoma, a rare form of cancer. So far, 70 per cent of the victims have died within two years. The vast majority of sufferers— 75 per cent—are homosexual males, many of them highly promiscuous, some with sexual histories involving many hundreds, and even thousands, of partners. Another 16 per cent of U.S. victims have been identified as hard-drug users, who were possibly infected by hypodermic needles. A few are hemophiliacs who likely caught the disease from clotting agents derived from inis fected blood. Less explicable is the five-per“ cent incidence of AIDS I among Haitian immiz grants. Recent inii stances of AIDS ap-

pearing in heterosexuals and children at first created alarm that the disease was spreading to the general public. However, researchers believe that the affliction can usually be traced to a sexual partner or a parent who has the disease, or to a blood transfusion.

Some researchers believe that AIDS attacks a body when defences have already been worn down by repeated and prolonged infections. However, there is mounting evidence that the disease is caused by an unidentified virus. “What the cure will be and where it will come from, no one knows,” says the U of T’s Read. The U.S. health department has classified AIDS as “the number 1 health priority, ” and the Reagan administration allocated $14 million for research into the disease this year. In Canada, doctors investigating the phenomenon in Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal are lobbying both federal and provincial governments for funding.

In many urban centres across the country homosexual communities are calling meetings, distributing literature and setting up AIDS hotlines. Plans are under way for relay runs in several Canadian centres, from Vancouver to Montreal, on Oct. 1 in hopes of raising $1.8 million to fight the disease.

But misinformation and panic continue to spread. Across the United States there are constant reports of frightened landlords evicting AIDS victims and their families. Some hospital nurses have resigned rather than treat AIDS patients, and embalmers have refused to handle their corpses. In San Francisco some dentists, firemen and policemen are wearing gloves and masks when dealing with known or suspected homosexuals. The anxiety has spread to Canada, where a Toronto antihomosexual organization, Positive Parents, has distributed thousands of leaflets across the country warning about AIDS. One calls for the closing of all bathhouses where homosexuals congregate. “We need to weed out and segregate these groups,” says the group’s president, jeweller Stewart Newton, 61. “This thing is a time bomb.”

Such responses have convinced homosexuals across North America that they are fighting on two fronts—against the disease and against public outrage. The air of solemnity that characterized the usually ebullient annual Gay Pride parade in San Francisco last week was one obvious sign of a troubled community. “Historically, we have always been treated as outlaws,” says a Torontobased AIDS committee spokesman, Robert Wallace. “We are being looked at not as the victims of this dreadful disease but as the cause of it. We are the lepers.”

Anne Beirne

Malcolm Gray