Facing a fatal disease

BOB LEVIN January 6 1986

Facing a fatal disease

BOB LEVIN January 6 1986

Facing a fatal disease


Marko Milic brings his own soap and towel to the health club. He wears slippers in the shower and he has stopped using the whirlpool. “A couple of years ago the whirlpool was full,” said Milic, a 35-year-old construction worker from Mississauga, Ont. “Now it’s empty. Everybody’s scared.” What scares Milic is Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS), a disease so mysterious that it can make even a health club seem unhealthy—and so deadly that it has fast become an international nightmare. Despite expert opinion on the difficulty of contracting the virus, Milic—and many other respondents to The Maclean’s/Decima Poll—are not reassured.

“If you get it,” said Milic, “you’re finished.”

Twenty per cent of Canadians polled said they were “very concerned” that they might contract AIDS, while another 26 per cent said they were “somewhat concerned.” However, asked whether “the spread of diseases such as AIDS has changed your sexual habits,” 82 per cent said “not at all.” That answer suggests that, like Milic, respondents were worried about nonsexual transmission of AIDS.

Blood transfusions may be the primary fear but, besieged by rumors about AIDS, the public appears confused.

And yet most of those polled seemed wary of overreacting. Respondents were told: “As you may know, some parents who have children in school have argued that children with AIDS should be barred from their schools to avoid any possibility of infecting others. Others have said that since it is unlikely others could become infected in that kind of situation, barring those children from school is a violation of their human rights.” When asked, “Which one of these two points of view best reflects your own?”

69 per cent of the sample said AIDS-infected children should not be barred from school.

Fear: Canadians are clearly aware of the seriousness of AIDS, which severely depresses the immune system, leaving its victims defenceless against infection. It has preyed primarily on homosexual men and drug abusers. But experts fear that prostitutes could help carry the disease to the population at large. There have now been more than 15,000 cases reported in the United States and more than 400 in Canada; in both countries more than half the victims have died. But no death had more public impact than that of film star Rock Hudson last October. If AIDS could fell the strapping actor, the public seemed to say, it could strike anyone. That logic tended to ignore the fact that Hudson was homosexual and that AIDS seems to be transmitted only through sexual or blood contact.

Still, at least some of the results of The Maclean’s/

Decima Poll revealed a correlation between sexual habits and a growing concern about catching AIDS. Among those less likely to be “very concerned” or “somewhat concerned” about contracting the disease (a total of 46 per cent of respondents) were those married or living common-law (43 per cent); people 45 years or older (36 per cent); and retired persons (28 per cent). All those

groups were also less likely to say they had changed their sexual habits “a great deal” or “somewhat” because of AIDS. Conversely, respondents most concerned about catching it included those with four or more sex partners in the past year (57 per cent compared to the average 46 per cent), singles (53 per cent), those under 30 years old (55 per cent) and people earning less than

$10,000 a year in household income (52 per cent).

One young respondent, 20-year-old Leona Yetman of Burin Peninsula, Nfld., said that many of her peers had become more cautious about their sexual activity—and that, in one case, the concern had turned homophobic. Recalled Yetman, a drafting student: “I was in a bar one night and a guy said to me, ‘You have gay friends?’ I said, ‘Yes, I do.’ And he said, ‘Well then I don’t want to talk to you anymore.’ ” Divorced people also were more inclined to change their sexual behavior.

Partners: Interestingly, women reported more concern about contracting AIDS than men did (48 per cent compared to 42 per cent) but were less likely to say they had changed their sexual habits as a result (10 per cent compared to 12 per cent). That seems at least partly attributable to the fact that women were less likely than men to report having multiple sex partners (24 per cent compared to nine per cent) and, as a result, may have had less reason to alter their behavior. Some men who said they had few partners were also unconcerned. “I’ve never been promiscuous to start with,” said Gary Shaul, 31, a Toronto computer operator who describes himself as heterosexual and single, “AIDS hasn’t changed my behavior at all.” Added Shaul: “I think AIDS is being used to stir up antihomosexual sentiments.”

For many respondents, the main worry clearly was about catching AIDS from something other than sex. Among respondents reporting no sexual partners at all in the past year, 28 per cent (compared to the average 20 per cent) said they were very concerned about contracting AIDS—although AIDS may well be part of the reason for such celibacy. Fear of the virus has led some people to endorse extreme measures. Respondent Myriam Lesquir, a 22-year-old Quebec City resident who is involved in a monogamous relationship with a man, said that she believes AIDS patients should be quarantined. Said Lesquir, a Laval university student: “It is reasonable—because I believe that a cure will be found soon—to keep people with AIDS in a hospital until they are treated.”

One respondent told Maclean’s that he employs several gays at his Toronto restaurant but does not know —nor has he asked—if any has AIDS. Said the restaurateur: “If it turned out that you could pass it on by handling food—Jesus, I hate even to think about it. We must believe what we read or we’ll all go crazy.” Still, there are nonbelievers in the medical profession, much to the chagrin of respondent Susan Camman. The 33year-old Camman, who teaches nursing at a community college in Peterborough, Ont., said she has heard nurses say that they would not want to care for AIDS patients. “Nurses have been looking after patients with hepatitis for years,” said Camman. “The problem with AIDS is that it’s so fatal.”

Another respondent, 34-year-old Shelley Heaton of tiny Glenwood, Alta., has another perspective altogether. “A lot of people might think I’m biased,” said Heaton, a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latterday Saints (Mormon), “but I do not think God put anybody on this earth to be homosexual. ”

Habits: For all their collective fears about AIDS, the Canadians polled showed distinct regional differences. The people most likely to say that AIDS had changed their sexual habits were from British Columbia (16 per cent) and Ontario (13 per cent), while the least likely were from Quebec and the Atlantic provinces (eight per

cent each). Quebecers also were least likely to be concerned about catching it. That relative lack of worry appears surprising because the province is second only to Ontario in the number of AIDS cases reported. But Richard Burzynski, the president of the AlDS-help group Comité SIDA Aide Montreal, said one possible explanation was that there was more information available —both domestically and from the United States—in English than in French. Added Burzynski: “A lot of people in Quebec don’t even know who Rock Hudson is.” Differences also were clear on the question of barring children with AIDS from school. Among those more likely to favor a ban were those with annual household incomes of less than $20,000 (33 per cent), retirees (37

Would you say the spread of diseases like AIDS has changed your sexual habits a great deal, somewhat, not too much, or not at all? Great Deal Somewhat Not too Much Not at AH - 82%

Would you say you are very concerned, somewhat concerned, not too concerned, or not concerned at all that you yourself might somehow contract this disease? Very Concerned20% Somewhat Concerned 26% Not too Concerned — 23% Not Concerned at AH 32%

per cent) and Atlantic residents (34 per cent). Those more likely not to support a ban included people with annual household incomes of $30,000 or more (73 per cent), who are 40 to 54 years of age (80 per cent) and who are university-educated (72 per cent). Respondent Susan Simon, 33, of Cambridge, Ont., said she would definitely send her daughter to school if a child there had AIDS. “The fear and paranoia are so dangerous,” said Simon, a quality-control inspector for an engineering firm. That is the message doctors and AIDS groups most want to impart: not that the disease should be taken lightly—it is deadly, indeed—but that there is simply no cause for public panic. Judging from poll results, however, some Canadians are not convinced—and will not be, perhaps, until doctors put out another word: cure.

— BOB LEVIN in Toronto