VOL. 317, p. 281, 26
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
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
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
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.
Faculté de Médecine
Laboratoire D’ Immunobiologie,
15, rue de l’Ecole de Médecine,
75006 Paris, France
- Nature 316, 663-664 (1965).
- Siegal, F.P. & Siegal, M (eds), AIDS : The medical
Mystery ( Group Press New York, 1983).
- Nature 316, 668 (1985).
- Le Monde, 31 August (1985).
- Le Monde, 17 July (1985).
- Seale, J. New Scientist No 1467, 29-30 (1985).
- 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).