• U.S.

Damage Control: Limiting the cost of AIDS

3 minute read

The commissioners of Alabama’s Jefferson County announced last week that they would no longer use prison inmates on road gangs. Penal reform? No. In part, at least, a fear of AIDS. If a citizen caught the incurable disease from a prisoner, explained Commissioner Ray Moore, the county might be sued. Despite evidence that the AIDS virus can be transmitted only through an exchange of blood or semen, Moore claimed that “the danger was great,” even though the likelihood of anyone’s having intimate contact with convicts on a road crew would seem slight.

Efforts to contain the social cost of AIDS are increasingly widespread. Earlier this month the Defense Department announced it will screen all 2.1 million active-duty military personnel for exposure to the AIDS virus. Last week Transamerica Occidental Life Insurance Co. began requiring AIDS tests for large-policy applicants in five “high-risk” states: California, Florida, Illinois, New Jersey and Texas, as well as in Washington, D.C. The company explained that $2.5 million of its life-insurance claims this year have involved AIDS victims.

Transamerica does not sell policies in New York, which has more than 30% of the nation’s reported AIDS cases. New York Governor Mario Cuomo last week announced a statewide program to order bathhouses, bars, sex clubs and porn shops to stop permitting anal intercourse and fellatio on their premises or be closed down. The owners could face fines and jail terms. While attention has focused on homosexuals, New York health officials warned that drug users, who contract AIDS from unsterilized hypodermic needles, now account for a third of all new cases in the state.

Trying to calm the fears of parents who oppose letting children with AIDS attend school, the American Academy of Pediatrics disclosed that there has not been a single known case of one child infecting another with AIDS. In San Francisco, Dr. Luc Montagnier, a French expert on the disease, reported on a study of 60 handicapped boys who lived together in “very close, casual and continual contact” at one school. Half were hemophiliacs, and half of these had AIDS. But none infected the others.

Congress last week was moving to provide funds for both research and treatment of the disease. The Senate voted to spend $221 million, while the House earlier approved $189 million. The Senate version includes $16 million for model treatment centers in four unspecified cities. This would be the first direct federal funding for the treatment of, rather than research into, AIDS.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com