AIDS as a Behavior Problem

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- Louis Sullivan, the secretary of health and human services, has unveiled a new media campaign designed to help people protect themselves from AIDS.

AIDS educators and gay activists attacked the campaign for its lack of explicitness. The words "sex" and "condoms" are not used. Officials explain that this is to make the campaign acceptable to wide audiences.


Despite relentless efforts by the homosexual lobby and its friends in the media to convince us that AIDS is now "everyone's disease," it is not. The largest percentage of those with AIDS in the United States are people who engaged in activity that put them at risk, and they continue to be homosexual males who practice sex with other men and with men who inject drugs.

Programs like the one on the Nickelodeon cable-TV channel last week in which Earvin "Magic" Johnson comforted a weeping child are touching, but they can mislead. The number of children LTC in the age group of 5 to 12 infected with AIDS is less than 1 percent of all AIDS carriers in the United States.


To his credit, Secretary Sullivan emphasized that AIDS is largely a disease caused by behavior. Yet most of the media focus only on protection, not behavioral changes.

Two days before Mr. Sullivan's news conference, William Roper, the director of the Centers for Disease Control, outlined before a gathering of public-health officials in Baltimore proposals that make more sense than "show-and-tell" condom demonstrations and advice to intravenous drug users to wipe their needles with bleach before shooting up.

Dr. Roper cited the surgeon general's 1964 Report on Smoking and Health as an example of how science can affect policy and eventually change even addictive behavior. He said that when the report linking smoking with lung cancer was published, the tobacco industry was second only to automobile manufacturers in spending on advertising and public relations.

"Against this awesome monster," Dr. Roper said, "public health had just one missile -- the truth." Millions are now alive, he said, because public health extracted truth from science and courageously used it over three decades to alter public policy and influence individual behavior. Dr. Roper believes a similar approach can alter behavior that puts people at risk of contracting AIDS.

He correctly analyzes the failed morality that began in the '50s with the Playboy philosophy. Hugh Hefner convinced a generation that "sex is the major civilizing influence in our society, not religion. You own your own body. Share it when you want to and in whatever way you want to."

How idiotic that sounds in the age of AIDS and the other unwanted consequences of the sexual revolution.

Dr. Roper says the nation's moral upheaval brought us a philosophy "which holds that the individual is best able to choose what is right for him or herself. Therefore, under this logic it follows that society and its ordained institutions -- and public health is one of them -- shall not presume to indicate that some behaviors are 'better' or even 'more healthful' than others."

He calls for the development of a public consensus somewhere between universal condom instruction which accepts the inevitability of teen-age sex, and a puritanical, head-in-the-sand approach. He hopes such a consensus will help shape public policy and eventually individual behavior.


Dr. Roper boldly says what ought to be obvious to all but the cowardly: "Young people need to get the message to postpone involvement in sexual activity. We need to make sure that we are not simply engaging in puritanical preaching but are striving to create a new health-oriented social norm that allows teens to feel comfortable in choosing to refrain from sex."

Dr. Roper is not announcing a program, only the goal. He wants to reach young people with "a positive, credible message," beginning with a search for common ground.

"Surely we can agree that premature initiation of sexual activity is unhealthy and unwise. Let us seek out those areas on which we can agree and deliver a clear and consistent message, rather than continuing only to quarrel over those issues on which we disagree."

It's time to turn the spotlight from the self-indulgent AIDS activists and put it on people with common sense like William Roper. We don't accept lawlessness, racism, pollution or ethical blindness as inevitable. Why must sex be in a category of its own, out of the reach of conformity to societal norms?

The best defense against AIDS is to refrain from behavior that puts you at risk. While there is room for other messages, this message ought to be primary and shouted louder than the rest.

Cal Thomas is a syndicated columnist.