Gov. William Donald Schaefer seems to be on a one-man crusade to require mandatory testing of all state health-care workers for the deadly AIDS virus. Virtually every expert agrees this would be foolish and expensive. Yet the governor persists in pushing his plan and castigating those who disagree with him. In this case, he would do well to listen to what his own medical advisers are saying.
Not one but two AIDS task forces have now reported to the governor that mandatory testing of health-care workers doesn't make scientific sense. There indeed has been public alarm since a Florida dentist, Dr. David Acer, infected five patients before dying. Four are still alive. One, Kimberly Bergalis, has died. So far, hers is the only case of HIV transmission by a health-care worker.
The governor insists this lone episode necessitates mandatory testing. At one point, he wanted AIDS tests performed on all doctors and patients. His concern, while well motivated, is misplaced.
Experts on the governor's first AIDS task force told Mr. Schaefer mandatory testing wouldn't work. The governor didn't like that conclusion and fired the task force. Then he hand-picked a new panel and cautioned them to come up with a plan more to his liking. Yet this task force has now reached the same verdict as the earlier one: AIDS testing of all health-care workers would be "fiscally irresponsible and scientifically unnecessary."
Other medical groups concur. The prestigious Centers for Disease Control, the American Medical Association, the state medical society and Dr. Louis Sullivan, the federal health secretary, have come out against mandatory HIV testing.
A more sensible prescription for limiting the risks comes from the governor's task force, which wants the state to implement OSHA guidelines for HIV protection in the workplace (requiring the use of masks, gloves, face shields, special goggles and non-permeable coats); a continuing education program on infectious diseases, including AIDS, for all health workers, and urging patients to invoke their rights to ask if their doctor has HIV. These steps would greatly reduce the risk for patients, which is the ultimate objective.
The governor's advisory panels are giving him sound guidance. While mandatory testing might quell political fears, it is not the answer. An individual can pass the test one day and contract the HIV virus the next; people do not test HIV-positive for three to six months after they are infected.
Instead of crusading for mandatory testing, the governor might be better off leading a statewide effort to educate health-care workers and patients about this deadly disease. And he should implement safeguards to protect everyone in the workplace from the HIV strain. Sadly, there is no panacea for AIDS, even in the political arena.