The New Untouchables

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

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There are 946,000 children attending New York City schools, and only one of them--an unidentified second-grader enrolled at an undisclosed school--is known to suffer from acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, the dread disease known as AIDS. But the parents of children at P.S. 63 in Queens, one of the city's 622 elementary schools, were not taking any chances last week. As the school opened its doors for the fall term, 944 of its 1,100 students stayed home.

That evening, hundreds of anxious parents gathered in the school's airless auditorium. They chanted, "Two, four, six, eight, no AIDS in any grades!" and waved placards proclaiming OUR CHILDREN WANT GOOD GRADES, NOT AIDS! Local politicians stirred the pot. "This is not meant to scare you," City Councilman Joseph Lisa of Queens began, "but leading medical researchers throughout the world truly believe that this epidemic may well be the most serious epidemic in recorded medical history." Chimed in State Assemblyman Frederick Schmidt: "There is no medical authority who can say with authority that AIDS cannot be transmitted in school. What about somebody sneezing in the classroom? What about the water fountain? What about kids who get in a fight with a bloody nose? They don't know!" The crowd screamed and stomped. Cried Schmidt: "We should not experiment with our children!"

Anxiety over AIDS in some parts of the U.S. is verging on hysteria. The boycott that kept home 12,000 of the 47,000 students in two Queens school districts on the first day of school last week was only the most dramatic display of the panic that has made virtual lepers out of many AIDS victims.

No longer is AIDS regarded as a "gay plague" that strikes down only promiscuous male homosexuals or heavy intravenous-drug users. Now children and heterosexuals are seen as vulnerable. The disclosure in July that Actor Rock Hudson suffers from AIDS has made the public more aware and helped generate more funding for AIDS-related research. Yet the publicity seems to have created more fear than understanding in U.S. communities.

In Miami, a highly successful caterer and floral designer named David Harrison was ruined when word spread that he had AIDS. Old clients, even hospitals, suddenly shunned him.

In Anaheim, Calif., last week, Episcopal Bishop William E. Swing distributed a pastoral letter to counsel the "cautious person" who fears catching AIDS by drinking wine from a common cup. Eating bread was deemed adequate Communion.

In San Antonio, County Judge Tony Jimenez arraigned a prisoner tested positive for AIDS in the man's jail cell, lest the courtroom and staff get contaminated.

In New Orleans, the local AIDS task force gets calls from citizens asking if the disease can be spread by mosquitoes. "If that were true, the whole city of New Orleans would have AIDS," sighs the agency's chairman, Dr. Louise McFarland.

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