'Irrational Fear' Leads to Violence, Discrimination of Aids Victims

Article excerpt

Not only does the country face a serious threat from the encroachment of AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome), it now is being asked to look inward and evaluate its treatment of those who fall victim to this fatal disease.

Incidents marked by violence seem to be occurring with alarming frequency. Witness the hounding of the Ray family in Florida, ending with the ostracism of their three sons and the burning of their home.

But a destructive pattern of discrimination also appears to be making itself visible. In one such case, an 83-year-old woman who tested positive for the AIDS antibody was refused admission to most nursing homes in Indiana. Although symptoms of the disease had not been detected, the managements and staffs were frightened. One executive was quoted as saying that 50 percent of his staff would resign if he admitted the patient.

This woman, it was pointed out, got the virus from infected blood in a transfusion administered in the days before screening procedures were in vogue.

Her dilemma and other similar cases are forcing Congress to consider new anti-discrimination laws. It's true as Oklahoma's state epidemiologist, Dr. Greg Istre, acknowledges, there are laws on the books to prevent discrimination. But something else has been apparent in the public's reaction to the AIDS epidemic.

"We're talking about irrational fear," observes Rep. Henry Waxman, a California congressman whose U.S. House of Representatives committee is considering legislation intended to shore up the rules of confidentiality while making it more difficult to discriminate against AIDS victims. He, too, notes that current law prohibits discrimination. Yet, it happens.

Moreover, there is another side to it. Waxman's California colleague, Republican William E. Dannemeyer, addresses the issue in this way:

"Is it good public policy to force a staff to work in a facility; to get a court order and compel them?"

Dannemeyer, who thinks not, adds: "We have a duty to those who are sick, but we also have a duty to protect the public."

Clearly, most involved in these discussions don't want the choices to be so narrow that patients can be turned away out of fear. Nor do they want it felt that health care workers must be forced to endanger their own lives.

That's why education becomes so important. …