The New Untouchables

Anxiety over AIDS is verging on hysteria in some parts of the country

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"People are scared--even medical professionals," says Linda Berkowitz, district administrator for the Florida department of health and rehabilitative services. "There are still so many unanswered questions, and myths abound." The fear is greatly out of proportion to the actual risk. Though the disease is invariably fatal, and the number of AIDS cases (now 13,000) has been doubling every ten months, the heterosexual population has scarcely been touched. The vast majority of AIDS victims (73%) are male homosexuals or bisexuals, and most of the rest are drug abusers. Nonetheless, when asked by a CBS-New York Times poll to name "the most serious medical problems facing the country," more people cited AIDS than heart disease, the nation's leading killer (75,961 deaths last year). Experts agree that AIDS can be spread only through intimate sexual conduct, the use of a contaminated hypodermic needle, transfusions of blood containing the virus, or, in the case of a newborn, from an infected mother (see following story). But many people remain ignorant or simply doubt the evidence. The CBS-Times poll found that 47% think that AIDS can be contracted via a drinking glass, and 28% believe the disease can be picked up from a toilet seat.

"This isn't mass hysteria, it's frightened, unified parents," says Annette Maiorana, a Queens mother who kept her eight-year-old out of school last week. "In school, kids share their milk, they share sandwiches, they spit at each other. There's urine on the toilet seats. They chew on a pencil and give it to a friend. I have a little one ready to go to preschool, and it's frightening."

The Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta advises that most children suffering from AIDS, unless they are handicapped, unable to control body secretions or given to biting other children, should be allowed to attend school. But many local officials wonder if the experts are underestimating the threat. Protests Marvin Aaron, a district superintendent in Queens: "I don't want all the medical experts telling me 'Don't worry.' I'm worrying." His School District No. 27 went to court last week to block the enrollment of the student with AIDS, apparently a girl whose disease is said to be in remission. The case is pending.

Some local schools have already barred AIDS patients from the classroom. Washington Borough in New Jersey turned away a four-year-old girl with AIDS- related complex (ARC) and her nine-year-old brother, even though he is not ill. In Washington, a child with AIDS is tutored alone in a separate room at school, and in Kokomo, Ind., a 13-year-old hemophiliac with the disease has been instructed at home over a phone hookup.

In Swansea, Mass., a boy suffering from AIDS was allowed to attend his eighth-grade class earlier this month, and only half a dozen of the school's 630 students were kept home by parents. But many parents bitterly railed against "the fancy talk" of experts who use vague terms like "shared bodily fluids" and speak of "probabilities" and "percentages" instead of giving yes or no answers.

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