COLUMN

The politics of a killer disease

Barbara Amiel December 8 1986
COLUMN

The politics of a killer disease

Barbara Amiel December 8 1986

The politics of a killer disease

COLUMN

Barbara Amiel

Two weeks ago in London, England, I made an appointment with a doctor for an AIDS test. My husband had been involved in a serious car accident several years ago that had necessitated blood transfusions, and we were both concerned with the statistically remote chance that he might have been given contaminated blood.

The test, of course, was very simple. But what intrigued me was that it was only in England that my awareness of AIDS was sufficiently raised to get me to take the test—which happily was negative. In England, where the percentage of those suffering from AIDS is one-quarter that of Canada, there is a full-scale public health crisis alert. At the end of November, Parliament began the lengthy debate on the various public policy issues connected with AIDS. There is a $40million campaign to inform the public about AIDS, with television commercials and leaflets in every household. The newspapers, most especially the broadsheet press, seem to carry at least one article per day on the disease, and debate on issues of public policy connected with the illness are frank and biting.

Returning to Canada is like going through the looking glass backward. Canada is next door to the United States, the major centre of AIDS in the Western world. But what is this country doing about it? It is true that Canadian doctors have been holding conferences and trying to alert public awareness, but government policy on the matter is close to the bizarre. The major question in Canada seems not to be how we can prevent this awful disease from spreading and how we can protect the uninfected. Rather, it is how we can prevent Canadians from in any way discriminating against those people who are walking about with a fatal disease that can be communicated through bodily fluids and for which there is absolutely no cure.

The Ontario Human Rights Commission has put AIDS victims under the category of handicapped so that they cannot be “discriminated” against in housing or employment. In Vancouver, there is an arbitration hearing to determine if a Canadian airline acted lawfully in grounding—with full pay and benefits—an air steward who has AIDS. Health and welfare authorities

have recommended that school officials not be notified of children who are seropositive—with AIDS antibodies in their systems, indicating the possible presence of the virus.

This lunacy reflects the political ramifications of AIDS. Had the disease first been associated with white heterosexuals instead of Africans, Haitians and homosexuals, it is certainly my view that our policies toward this lethal epidemic would have been swift and unequivocal. The disease would have been notifiable to health authorities in all provinces in order to accurately monitor its spread. That notification would have included seropositive results, which could then be closely watched to determine what percentage of carriers develop fullblown AIDS. AIDS cases would have been quarantined and there would have been no hesitation in protect-

Surely the only advice for people with a deadly, incurable and sexually transmittable disease is to abstain from sex

ing schoolchildren from infected playmates.

Children may not have sexual relations with one another—the commonest way to pass on AIDS—but they fight, have nose bleeds and play at being “blood brothers” by mixing their blood. And realistically speaking, children being children and not fully able to appreciate the darker aspects of life may well find it a great lark to tempt fate by inventing a Russian roulette type of blood-brother game. At the very least, parents should be given a choice whether or not to have their children at school with AIDS carriers. As for the victims of AIDS—who alas have only about three years at most to live—although it is incumbent upon this society to do everything that money can do to help alleviate their pain and suffering, our first responsibility must be to protect the healthy. That will include keeping children with AIDS out of regular schools for their last few months of life.

What is most ludicrous about the Canadian approach to the disease is the inner lack of logic in handling it. About a year ago, the Ontario ministry

of health sent out literature to all Ontario doctors advising them to inform AIDS patients and seropositive patients to “refrain from deep kissing” and use condoms during sex. But surely the only advice a responsible physician can give to a patient carrying an incurable, deadly, sexually transmittable disease is to refrain from sex. Condoms cannot be an assured means of preventing the transmission of AIDS.

If, on the other hand, as we are constantly being told, semen and blood are the only significant ways of transmitting the disease, while sweat and saliva are barely suspect, why tell patients to refrain from deep kissing? This lack of logic disturbed me. I was further confounded when, while watching television documentaries of research laboratories and hospitals where people work with AIDS patients, I saw the medical staff all bundled up like mummies. As far as I could see, the medical staff were not going to have sex with AIDS patients nor were they taking blood transfusions, but their protective clothing far exceeded the normal masks and gowns one might expect in a hospital. They were clearly worried about tears, sweat and saliva.

At some point, Canadian society will have to discuss the real issues here. I think it will be necessary to make voluntary testing for AIDS the socially acceptable thing to do so that people will be able to monitor their own behavior in a responsible fashion. How can you do that if you don’t know if you are a carrier? It will also be necessary to talk to those various racial groups—as they have done in England—who have more flexible or looser groupings than the stable family unit. They must be urged to change their sexual habits. The alternative is to stand silently by and see them decimated by AIDS because we were afraid to be called racist.

It is, in part, because we allowed the anal practices of promiscuous homosexuals to become morally acceptable in this society that the disease has spread so rapidly. Now, the time has come to make promiscuity socially unacceptable or, when the AIDS epidemic finally makes its mark on the consciousness of this land, Canadians will cry out for the sort of hysterical measures that will condemn AIDS patients to Devil’s Island. Better to face the questions now and plan public policy in an atmosphere of genuine civility.