The day after basketball star Magic Johnson stunned the sports world with the news that he was infected with the HIV virus, workers at AIDS hotlines reported record numbers of calls from people wanting to be tested for the deadly disease. It appeared that Mr. Johnson's announcement might actually accomplish what years of government and private AIDS education efforts had failed to do: raise public awareness of the risks associated with unprotected heterosexual sex to the point where people changed their behavior.
In retrospect, such hopes were doomed from the beginning. One of the most disturbing aspects of the first decade of the AIDS epidemic has been the astonishing ability of people to deny the reality of the threat when it comes to their own lives. For most Americans, AIDS remains a disease that happens to others -- gay men, IV drug users, racial minorities -- and this despite the insistence of doctors and researchers that the whole concept of "risk groups," i.e. that some people are more likely to be infected than others, is obsolete. In effect, everyone is now at risk of contracting AIDS.
Yet a recent Los Angeles Times story about attitudes toward AIDS among Baltimore teen-agers suggested that although young people are aware of Magic Johnson's tragedy and may even have received detailed information about the disease in school, most do not worry that it could happen to them. Experts say it may be hypocritical to expect people to embrace "safe sex" as a lifestyle -- much less total abstinence -- when they are bombarded with images from a popular culture that exalts sexual hedonism and instant gratification.
Repeated studies show that, sadly, there is only one sure-fire way to focus people's attention on the AIDS threat. People who have personally known someone who has died from the disease -- a friend, relative or colleague -- overwhelmingly report that the loss brought home to them in concrete terms what before had been only a vague abstraction. It may be too much to hope that education alone will cause a fundamental change in behavior as well as attitudes, but it is a hope we must cling to or accept the alternative: that millions more must die before this terrible scourge is conquered.