Threats stalk the victims of a plague

NORA UNDERWOOD October 5 1987

Threats stalk the victims of a plague

NORA UNDERWOOD October 5 1987

Threats stalk the victims of a plague


In the southern Florida agricultural community of Arcadia, terrified and angry area residents threatened the lives of a local couple that was trying to convince the school board to readmit its three young sons—all of whom have tested positive for the Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) virus—to classes. In Cape Sable Island, N.S., parents pressured the local school board to transfer an elementary teacher who had tested positive with the AIDS virus from the classroom to a desk job. And in Durham Bridge, N.B., a mother told her 26year-old son to leave home after she found out that he had been exposed to the AIDS virus. For most people, a diagnosis of AIDS—or even confirmation of exposure to the virus—is a traumatic experience. But in many cases, the ostracism and isolation that AIDS sufferers may face as a result can be as difficult to cope with as the disease itself.

In the past two years Canadian and U.S. health officials have made education and awareness about AIDS a top priority, and their public information campaigns have evoked much sympathy and concern. But some members of the public-many of whom are from small towns, where information is less readily available—react adversely when AIDS emerges close to home. Without proper education, said Phil Shaw, a spokesman for the AIDS Committee of Toronto, people “act from ignorance, and from ignorance comes fear.”

That fear is likely intensified because scientists have an incomplete understanding of the disease. Currently, health officials can do little more than warn people of the dangers of casual sex and intravenous drug use. Workers in the health care and justice systems can try to protect themselves from coming into direct contact with the bodily fluids of an infected person. But still, no one is absolutely certain about all the ways AIDS can be transmitted.

In addition, researchers say that they are at least five years away from producing a proven anti-AIDS vaccine. And according to Jo Asvall, director of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) European regional office in Copenhagen, even if scientists were to find a cure for the disease in the near future AIDS would continue to claim more and more lives for years to come. Currently, more than 60,000 people worldwide have full-scale cases of AIDS, and WHO officials estimate that another five to 10 million are carriers.

For many of those people, AIDS may take a heavy psychological toll as they cope not only with the possibility of a premature death but also with the social impact of their disease.

In fact, the perceived danger of AIDS in the classroom has resulted in widespread community panic in some school districts in both Canada and the United States. For more than three

months Clifford Ray, a security guard, and his wife, Louise, fought to have their three hemophiliac sons readmitted to the public school in Arcadia (pop. 6,000), 60 km west of Sarasota. The boys—Ricky, 10, Robert, 9, and Randy, 8—had been exposed to the AIDS virus through blood treatment. On Aug. 24 the children showed up for classes at Memorial Elementary School with a court order—and waves of hysteria swept the town.

A group called Citizens Against AIDS in School held public protests, the Rays received death threats, the school received bomb threats, and many parents kept their children out of classrooms. Later that week the Rays’ wood home was heavily damaged by fire. Said Lawrence Browning, the county’s superintendent of public schools: “We did not anticipate what would happen. We were too busy trying to get ready

for school.” Now, Browning said, the schools are taking precautions and monitoring injuries as common as a school yard nosebleed. Declared Browning: “We have to assume that any child with a body-fluid spill has a contagious disease.”

For his part, Centreville, N.S., teacher Eric Smith, 29, tested positive for the AIDS virus a year ago. Smith, an

admitted homosexual, had been teaching Grade 5 at the seven-room Clark’s Harbour Elementary School, and after a school reorganization last winter he was reassigned to Cape Sable Island Elementary School, eight kilometres away. But during the spring, information about his condition spread around the town—one of nine fishing communities on the southern tip of the province—and by late August increasing pressure from parents forced the school board to transfer Smith to administrative duties in nearby Shelburne.

According to Smith, only three people outside of his family would speak to him in public, and he learned that parents were warning their children about him. Said the teacher: “One said it would be best if I were dead before the school year started. Another told her daughter that if she came near me,

she should put her hands over her nose and mouth.”

Smith said that faced with those reactions he decided that, although he would attempt to reach a settlement with the board, he would not return to the classroom—whatever the outcome. Declared Smith: “What happens to the students if I return? It has become very emotional for them.

Some might be afraid of me.” According to Owen Wheelock, superintendent of schools for Shelburne District County School Board, parental pressure was only one factor in Smith’s transfer. Another, he said, was that school board members “were putting themselves in the shoes of parents who had children in school.” But for Smith, who grew up in Centreville, the reason was more simple. “Many people have known I was gay,” he said. “I think they could handle one strike against me —but not two.”

Meanwhile, in New Brunswick, James Henderson has had to face similar ostracism. Henderson, 26, a political science major at Toronto’s York University, tested positive for the AIDS virus in July, 1987, and decided to take a year off to rest and to visit his family in Durham Bridge,

N.B., 25 km north of Fredericton.

Henderson says that his bisexuality was never an issue with his mother and six siblings, but he added that the discovery that he had been exposed to the AIDS virus was too much for them. Said Henderson: “I knew there was anxiety, but by the time I actually arrived there was hysteria.”

His mother tried to convince him to return to Toronto and said that her employer had told her that it would be “bad for business” if people found out he was staying with her. The next day one of Henderson’s sisters came to the house and told him that if he did not leave quietly she would call the police and have him charged with trespassing.

Although Henderson ac-

knowledges that he was never close to his family, he added, “When the chips fell, I thought they would be there.”

For Henderson, who returned to Toronto 1V2 weeks later, dealing with the loss of his family has been as difficult as coming to grips with the fact that

he could die a premature death. Still, he says that he is prepared to fight to educate people about what it means to have or carry the AIDS virus, “AIDS has some profound implications,” declared Henderson, “but it has nothing to do

with being an infected carrier put in isolation and ostracized from your family and from society at large.” Instead, Henderson says that he believes many people still have little understanding of what it means to test positive for the disease, let alone have it. For one thing, he said, carrying the virus “does not mean that you are going to die tomorrow. It doesn’t mean you are going to infect the whole household. It doesn’t mean kids are going to die from contact with you.”

Like many other carriers of the virus, Henderson says that the real issue is that federal and provincial governments are ill-prepared to deal with social aspects of the epidemic. In addition, he says, education and information programs must be improved so that people can cope better when they are confronted with someone who has AIDS. “It’s not dealing with statistics, figures, possibles and maybes,” said Henderson, “AIDS is a people issue.”