Jewish World Review Jan. 31, 2003 / 28 Shevat, 5763

Drs. Michael A. Glueck & Robert J. Cihak

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AIDS Bug Chasers | Human attitudes toward disease never have been, and never can be, entirely rational. For the last few millennia, and far too often today, many diseases have been regarded as divine punishment for individual or communal sins. Other diseases - cancer and some forms of mental illness, for example - have been stigmatized for cultural and social reasons.

And some diseases have been "favored" politically and even rendered "fashionable." In the 19th century, tuberculosis was considered a signifier of artistic temperament.

Today, it seems, nearly every disease known to humanity has some philanthropic association devoted to its eradication, and some high-powered D.C. lobbyist busily hustling for federal bucks.

In our time, HIV/AIDS has been all of these. But not until recently has there been much publicity accorded the phenomenon of "bug chasers" - gay men who wish to acquire the disease. Assuming that the recent publicity is true.

The furor started with an article in Rolling Stone, "Bug Chasers: The men who long to be HIV+." The reporter, one Gregory A. Freeman, claims to have interviewed an attractive young gay gent named "Carlos" (For real? A phony? A "composite"?) who, whilst slurping his grande Caffe Mocha at a New York Starbucks, claimed to be actively seeking infection - a "bug chaser" in search of, via the Internet and other modalities, a "gift giver" whose infected semen is regarded in his set as "liquid gold."

Getting HIV, according to the Carlos et al., generates a primal erotic experience (Is this the time it happens?), a conversion experience ("Breed me! Seed me!"), a sense of community and belonging ("The more we are, the stronger we are") and, subsequently, the thrill of infecting others, whether they want the experience or not.

How many, if any, like Carlos are out there? Hard to say. Several gay-community medical workers interviewed by Mr. Freeman tended to minimize the number and the significance of the bug seekers. Others were quoted as suggesting that it might be as high as 10,000 new cases a year, or one-fourth of the annual load.

However, nearly all Mr. Freeman's medical sources have stated for other publications, from the Washington Times to the gay website, that they've either been misquoted or that they haven't yet seen the story but that it sure sounds as if they were misquoted. Ari Fleischer, however, was not misquoted at a recent White House press briefing. After professing ignorance of the whole phenomenon (more than once), the president's press secretary stated most emphatically that "He [Mr. Bush] is very proud of the fact that his budget has unprecedented amounts of money, both foreign and domestic, to help people with AIDS."

Once again, the government seizes the steer by the balls and tugs.

But what do we really have here? If there really is a "bug catcher" movement that goes beyond the real or fictive Carlos, several interpretations are possible. One, of course, is that some people just want to kill themselves, whether by jumping out of windows or an ugly phenomenon known as "suicide by cop" - provoking the police into using deadly force. Another possibility is that these men are simple thrill seekers who, having exhausted the rest of the repertoire, now traffic in death. It's happened often, in other ways.

A third possibility is more complex.

Throughout history and literature, people have deliberately exposed themselves to deadly infection. Sometimes their motivations are noble and altruistic: caring for others, medical research, perhaps even sharing suffering with a lover or other precious person. Sometimes they reflect the kind of existential turmoil that goes on in the human depths when death is the issue. But, to the extent that Carlos and those like him seek infection because it's cool, we must consider the culture that makes such seeking possible and desirable ... and we're talking about American culture, and not just the farther reaches of the gay realm.

Although the Rolling Stone "Bug Chasers" article has created the expected sharp rhetoric with charges and denial, the truth is that this "revelation" should not become the basis for a heated battle between medical, public health, governmental, and socio-economic groups and agencies. Rather, it is a time for calm heads, cool discussion and collective education.

In the past, the gay community has shown that it can respond to life threatening behaviors and health crises. There is yet no reason to think it won't now.

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Michael Arnold Glueck, M.D., is a multiple award winning writer who comments on medical- legal issues. Robert J. Cihak, M.D., is past president of the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons. Both JWR contributors are Harvard trained diagnostic radiologists. Comment by clicking here.


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© 2002