What You Can Do To Avoid AIDS

December 01, 1992  ·  Michael Fumento  ·  Washington Monthly  ·  Aids

"George: Portrait of a Serial Killer - One AIDS Death Every Six Minutes." So read a recent cover of the "gay/lesbian/bisexual newspaper" The San Francisco Bay Times, that featured the official presidential portrait of George Bush. Actually, one AIDS death every six minutes would come out to about 88,000 deaths. Despite early government projections of 45,000 to 57,000 AIDS deaths this year, the actual number will probably be about 30,000.

Exaggerating the numbers has long been an accepted practice in the AIDS establishment, as is accusing George Bush of mass murder. By underfunding the fight against AIDS, the charge goes, President Bush has assumed responsibility for the greatest cause of premature homosexual deaths since the Nazis rounded up gay men and shipped them off to the camps.

Words like "holocaust" and "genocide" pepper the language of the AIDS activists, even though in the very next breath they may loudly assert that AIDS is not a homosexual disease at all, that indeed it "does not discriminate" and "is an equal opportunity destroyer." There’s nothing new about this rhetoric; what’s new is hearing it from a national sports hero.

Enter Earvin "Magic" Johnson, the star Los Angeles Lakers basketball player, who in less than one year retired twice from basketball and once from the National Commission on AIDS (NCA), to which President Bush had appointed him. Johnson quit the NCA in October, saying that the president had "dropped the ball" in the fight against AIDS and that Bush "cut the commission down, left and right, in funding," meaning not the commission’s funding but that of the war against AIDS.

So doing, Johnson won many accolades from the media and the AIDS establishment. Few noted that Johnson had been threatening to quit the commission since shortly after his appointment and that of six meetings it held while he was on it, he attended only two. (Bush mistakenly said during the first presidential debate that it had been one.)

It’s understandable that Johnson didn’t feel like sitting on the commission but the reason he gave, which echoes the cover of The San Francisco Bay Times, has no grounding in reality. It’s true that for both fiscal years 1992 and 1993 Congress appropriated more money for one AIDS category than the administration requested, that of services to AIDS patients. (It spent $ 56 million more in 1992 and $ 42 million more for 1993.)

Services to AIDS patients are all well and good, but they do not save lives. That’s the job of prevention and research, and here Bush would have actually outspent Congress if Congress had let him. For fiscal year 1992, the administration requested $ 39 million more than Congress appropriated. For fiscal year 1993, Bush requested $ 26 million more than Congress appropriated. That jibes neither with Johnson’s assertion nor that of activists who blame the epidemic on Bush nor that of Elizabeth Glaser who, at the Democratic national convention, blamed Bush personally for the death of her child. Bush may have committed many a wrong during his four years as president, but underfunding AIDS research simply was not one of them.

Further, AIDS research funding is already 10 times that of cancer on a per death basis, 20 times on a per patient basis. Ironically, the same day the Los Angeles Times carried a front-page story about a Johnson AIDS fundraiser, it carried several stories describing promising advances in cancer therapy that are held up for lack of funds. It reported that in real terms, cancer spending in 1991 was well below the level it had been in 1980.

Activist Tense

These charges against Bush reflect the sense among activists that if twice as much is spent on the AIDS budget, then the disease will be cured twice as fast, if three times as much is spent, then it will be cured three times as fast, and so on. But it doesn’t work that way. There are only so many trained medical researchers capable of soaking up so much funding, and cancer research and other medical fields have already given over many of their best and brightest to AIDS work.

Already, there are hints that there may be massive wasted spending in the guise of AIDS research. But the same media that saw fit to run hundreds of stories on Pentagon cost overruns a few years ago has steadfastly resisted the temptation to write articles about wasted AIDS money.

Far more ink has gone to books on AIDS prevention. Earlier this year Magic Johnson put out his own, What You Can Do to Avoid AIDS, a thin paperback that has a list of endorsements - including a slew of AIDS activists and the American Medical Association - longer than Johnson’s right leg. The book generated controversy when some major family discount store chains refused to carry it, citing its sometimes graphic language. This being a family magazine, none of the dirty words will be repeated, but as far as AIDS books go, Magic’s is rather tame. Johnson even uses "massage" as a euphemism for masturbation, perhaps because he doesn’t want to read in the newspapers that he’s encouraging kids to masturbate.

Some have commented on the hypocrisy of a man who’s hinted at having had thousands of lovers writing a book urging sexual caution and restraint, but this is unfair. "St. Earvin," as one of his few critics has dubbed him, may not be a modem St. Augustine, but he certainly has learned the hard way that sexual indiscretion can be deadly. This book can be seen as an effort to keep others from ending up where he did.

The facts in the book are by and large correct. Yet the message is anything but straightforward. Consider the last paragraph in the book, which its promoters have been wont to repeat: "Take responsibility. It’s your life. Remember: The safest sex is no sex, but if you choose to have sex, have safer sex each and every time. HIV happened to me, so I know it could happen to you. I want you to stay safe. Your life is worth it."

Note the passive tense: "happened to me." Sorry, but HIV doesn’t just "happen." Influenza happens, measles happen, and colds happen, but HIV results from a very limited number of intentional behaviors. How does a book that so graphically details how to prevent HIV transmission (for example, seven pages devoted exclusively to proper use of a condom; a detailed discussion of why household plastic wrap is superior for protection during cunnilingus than is the plastic film used in trash bags) reconcile that with saying it "happens" to you?

Johnson also engages in the same false sloganeering that, like exaggerating the number of AIDS deaths or portraying George Bush as a mass murderer, is understood by the AIDS establishment to be justified: "We’re all at risk," he says. "Anyone can get HIV," and "Your sexual orientation has nothing to do with your risk of getting HIV." Tell that to gays in San Francisco where 11,033 gay and bisexual adults have died of AIDS since the epidemic began, while the city has reported only 89 heterosexual transmission cases. Such slogans should irritate gay men the same way that a woman might be peeved were she told that her gender had nothing to do with getting breast cancer. Rhetoric that is sexual-orientation neutral may be politically correct, but in the realm of AIDS it isn’t scientifically correct.

Johnson & Johnson

Johnson also tells us that, "In New York City, over half of the people with AIDS are heterosexuals," without informing us that three-fourths of the women in this category are intravenous drug abusers. And in light of the continued controversy over whether he was telling the truth when he said that he was infected by a woman, it’s not surprising that Johnson doesn’t tell us that of over 35,000 total cases, New York City lists only 18 men as having gotten the disease from a woman. This is because the city’s department of health is one of the few in the nation that actually investigates claims of sex transmissions, rather than merely taking the man’s word for it.

One aspect of Johnson’s book which is accurate and that cannot be emphasized enough is the low to non-existent risk of being infected through casual contact. Maybe he should have aimed his book at NBA players instead of teens because it was in part the unease expressed by members of other teams over playing against someone with HIV that led Johnson to retire again.

No one could doubt Magic’s good intentions in putting out this book, but one has to wonder if it was really necessary. The teenage audience, which it clearly targets, is already under a constant bombardment of AIDS books, lectures, articles, and television shows with AIDS messages aimed especially at heterosexual teens. It would be a wonder if most teenagers are not now convinced that teen AIDS is more prevalent than acne. Yet for all the propaganda and blaring headlines ("AIDS Runs Wild Among Teenagers" read a headline in a Honolulu newspaper), teen AIDS is almost non-existent. Last year, 160 teenage AIDS cases were diagnosed in this country, 10 fewer than the year before. In terms of teenage infections as well, there is no evidence of a big or growing problem.

A report released by the House Select Committee on Children, Youth, and Families, chaired by Rep. Pat Schroeder of Colorado, which called the federal response to teen AIDS a "national disgrace" and which prompted the Honolulu newspaper headline, claimed that not only was there an explosion of new teenage cases but of infections as well. The committee cited two studies in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Yet one of these studies, that of military applicants, showed the opposite

  • that infections among teenage applicants are few and declining - and the other, of Job Corps applicants, merely showed that teenage HIV infections are disproportionately a problem of disadvantaged minorities.

Other infection studies have given similar results, such as one of over 16,000 college students reported in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1990 that indicated an overall infection rate one-half that estimated for all age groups by the federal Centers for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC). Of the 30 students who tested positive, only two were female, even though more females were tested than males. ("College age" AIDS cases

  • 20 to 24 years old - also declined last year, from 1,626 in 1990 to 1,485 in 1991.)

A CDC study released in June of people randomly tested in 38 hospitals shows infections in the 15-24 age range to be one fourth that of those in the 25-34 and 35-44 age ranges. Looking at these and other infection data, the June CDC study concluded, "For both men and women, infection is most prevalent in persons in their late twenties and early thirties."

Peter Plumley, writing in the actuarial magazine Contingencies, estimates that about 300 teenagers are infected through heterosexual intercourse each year. Saving those lives, plus those of homosexual teens, is a worthwhile goal, but so should be saving far greater numbers of lives. It may come as a shock to hear that 12,000 youths ages 15-24 die in traffic accidents each year with many times that number severely injured; that half of those lives could be saved if those youths had worn safety belts, and that a recent study shows that only about a fourth of all high schoolers always wear their safety belts.

If a fraction of the time, money, and effort thrown into terrifying America’s youth over AIDS were used in a campaign to increase seat belt usage, the number of lives saved would utterly swamp the entire number of teens getting AIDS or contracting HIV.

But can’t we teach both safe sex/no sex and safe driving to our youth? Yes, but we don’t. In a sort of Gresham’s law of priorities, the low but highly publicized risk has eclipsed the high risks. Consider that while AIDS education has become mandatory in California public middle and high schools, driver’s training has been dropped from the state school budget for lack of funds. California has misplaced its priorities - though perhaps no less than the rest of the nation - and its youth will die because of it. Don’t expect a celebrity book about this, though.

Sam Kinison might have written one had he survived his car accident. He died, however, because he wasn’t wearing a seat belt.