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NATURE

VOL. 317, p. 281, 26

SEPT. 1985

The AIDS panic

Public pressure for protective measures against the acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) is only starting to surface1. Perhaps the greatest danger now is that the dramatic change in public attitudes towards the disease will have consequences more devastating than the syndrome itself. Growing demands for protection will force governments to adopt measures which, to be effective, may undermine the foundations of Western society, to the extent that they lead to segregation of the infected population, not only blood donors2. The US army has already made a pioneering decision in that direction3.

A computerized listing of all seropositives used as a new basis for discrimination and eventual segregation of the potential viral carriers is not a fictitious danger. It is the logical outcome of the development of a fear for which the AIDS virus is less responsible than scientists and journalists. After accusing the sexual minority, rejected since biblical times by the prevalent religions, the authors of the sensational will now stress the number of victims4 and emphasize the hope for a vaccine (R. Gallo quoted in "Le Monde''), while the scientists, having exhausted the immunosuppressive properties of sperm, seminal fluid and homosexuality, now predict the danger of a lethal pandemic within the next 15-25 years6, forgetting that African AIDS, although appearing in 1970, has not fulfilled even part of the prophecy. The reasoning has been so simple as to appear flawless, as is always the danger with inductive science. A mere extrapolation from preliminary epidemiological data or other animal lentiviral diseases is sufficient to predict a pandemic in the 21st century, in the same simplistic way that for two years homosexuality was believed to be the cause of the syndrome, since AIDS was predominant in the homosexual population. The infectious agent hypothesis was then considered to be "too simplistic"7.

There is no way out of this potentially explosive situation other than factual information. It is thus urgent to refrain from formulating too easy extrapolations, if we do not wish to spend the next twenty years with the fear of contamination. Establishing the time lapse during which seropositive individuals are viral carriers is under these circumstances a research priority second only to that aiming at the investigation of the mechanisms of resistance of those who, although infected with the virus, do not develop the full-blown disease.

However, perhaps the first priority is to inform the lay public so that the fear of the unknown does not develop into hysteria, and instead of promising vaccines, which we do not yet know how to produce, it is urgent to explain what AIDSis not and, by extrapolating from the known, define the limits of the epidemic rather than the boundaries of terror in our imagination.

DIMITRI VIZA Faculté de Médecine
Laboratoire D’ Immunobiologie,
15, rue de l’Ecole de Médecine,
75006 Paris, France

  1. Nature 316, 663-664 (1965).
  2. Siegal, F.P. & Siegal, M (eds), AIDS : The medical Mystery ( Group Press New York, 1983).
  3. Nature 316, 668 (1985).
  4. Le Monde, 31 August (1985).
  5. Le Monde, 17 July (1985).
  6. Seale, J. New Scientist No 1467, 29-30 (1985).
  7. Sonnabend, J.A., Witkin, S.S. & Purtillo, D.T. In: The Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome and Infections of Homosexual Men (eds pearl, M.A. & ARMSTRONG, D. ) 409-427 (Yorke, New York, 1984).

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