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Jewish World Review July 2, 2001/ 11 Tamuz 5761

Wesley Pruden

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Reprising hysteria over
the AIDS threat -- THE hysteria over AIDS, which once made rational conversation about it impossible, has subsided. But the voodoo beat goes on.

The United Nations declared war on AIDS this week with its usual pop-gun bravado, as if the world's most famous bureaucracy has the power to make "war" on anything.

The delegates to "the first-ever international initiative" accomplished a high-sounding declaration of war on a disease that has so far killed 22 million persons throughout the world, dwarfed by the numbers taken by cancer and heart disease, and adopted the usual bowl of alphabet soup to describe their program.

However, nobody wants to contribute the $3.2 billion to get it started, to say nothing of the $9.2 billion the United Nations wants by the year 2005. That may not buy a vaccine, but it will buy a lot of bureaucrats.

Nobody wants to put up that kind of money, in part because almost nobody has that kind of money, and no doubt because a lot of the delegates are counting on pressuring the United States, as usual, to come up with that kind of money. More than 160 nations sent delegates, but so far only a half-dozen nations and a few private foundations have pledged $645 million.

The United Nations estimates that 36 million people are HIV-positive or suffering from AIDS at present, and 25 million are in Africa, where AIDS will kill 100 million within the next decade.

All of this may be true. Or some of it may be true. Nobody knows. What the United Nations is trying to do is reprise the hysteria of a decade ago when, we were confidently told, everyone would be dead by now. Life magazine headlined a 1985 cover story "Now no one is safe from AIDS." Masters and Johnson warned that the unwary could contract AIDS from toilet seats and the famous sex therapist Helen Singer Kaplan, noting that condoms don't really protect anyone, confidently told us that kissing, even if not on a toilet seat, carries a risk of AIDS. Basketball superstar Magic Johnson, who boasted that he had bedded half the women east and west of the Mississippi but nary a man east or west, was held up as proof that you could get AIDS through heterosexual frolic. Oprah Winfrey said 60 million Americans would be dead of AIDS by 1990.

Anyone who scoffed at any of this was marked down as ignorant, hateful, homophobic, or all three. When this newspaper examined the wild claims and quoted public-health officials as saying they were bunk, we were swamped with angry calls. A prominent physician-researcher in tropical medicine called to say that even if the stories were not true we should print them anyway, as a warning. Many bookstores refused to stock Michael Fumento's book, "The Myth of Heterosexual AIDS," in deference to the emotional sensibilities of homosexual activists. (It became a best seller, anyway.) Discover magazine took considerable heat when it debunked the claims with a cover story concluding that AIDS would likely remain "largely the fatal price one can pay for anal intercourse." It was a civic duty to regard smoking as a form of suicide, but mean and hateful to warn that sodomy was folly. Everyone knew this, as researchers would tell us privately, but it was suicide to say so in public. The Reagan administration, unable to take the heat, finally dumped so much government money into research that researchers with a respect for science warned that the abundant money was tempting good researchers into blind alleys.

John Tierney recounts in the New York Times the sad story of Dr. Stephen Joseph, the commissioner of health in New York City in 1988. The city had estimated that 400,000 New Yorkers carried the AIDS virus, and Dr. Joseph, after examining the evidence, cut the estimate in half. Overnight the facts threatened the fiction. His office was occupied by AIDS "activists," his home spray-painted with ugly graffiti. He got death threats. Ten years on and it turns out that Dr. Joseph was, in fact, wrong: The number of AIDS cases diagnosed in New York through the year 2000 is not 400,000, or even 200,000, but little more than 100,000.

And yet The Washington Post op-ed page is at it again, conjuring doom. Under the headline, "We All Have AIDS," one Dr. David Berwick, a vice president of something called Healthcare, argues that unless the pharmaceutical companies give away AIDS medicines everyone in Africa will die. He describes what's happening there, where unprotected male-to-male anal sex is endemic, as "a Holocaust every two years," as if Africans are being thrown onto trains and transported to concentration camps where everyone is forced into gay (if not always happy) orgies.

AIDS is a horrific disease, and Africa needs a lot of help from grown-ups. But it doesn't need the hysteria.

JWR contributor Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Washington Times. Comment by clicking here.

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