Spreading the notion that lifestyle, not a virus, is to blame (CORRECTED)
Steve Connor is the Science Editor of The Independent and i. He has won many awards for his journalism, including five-times winner of the prestigious British science writers’ award; the David Perlman Award of the American Geophysical Union; four times highly commended as specialist journalist of the year in the UK Press Awards; UK health journalist of the year and a special merit award of the European School of Oncology for his investigations into the tobacco industry. He has a degree in zoology from the University of Oxford and has a special interest in genetics and medical science, human evolution and origins, climate change and the environment.
Friday 21 May 1993
CORRECTION (PUBLISHED 13 AUGUST 1993) APPENDED TO THIS ARTICLE
THERE has never been a disease quite like Aids. This is perhaps the only statement that everyone involved with the debate about heterosexual Aids agrees upon.
Andrew Neil, editor of the Sunday Times and a supporter of the heterosexual 'myth', has said there is an unholy alliance between gay activists wanting to ensure Aids is not classed as a gay plague, and the 'moral majority' who want to fight promiscuity.
'Never in the history of public health policy have so many lies and distortions been told about a disease than Aids. It's resulted in a massive misallocation of resources,' he said recently. 'You have more of a chance to get run over by a car on the way to see your girlfriend than you have of contracting Aids from them.'
The Sunday Times has helped to foster the myth that heterosexuals are not in danger. In 1990 it serialised a book by Michael Fumento, an American analyst, who dismissed suggestions that 'we are all at risk'.
Mr Fumento's argument was based on figures showing that the overwhelming majority of heterosexuals who had Aids fell into high-risk groups, such as drug users and their partners. His theme was that white heterosexuals in middle-class America had nothing to fear from a disease that Aids activists were trying to promote as a danger to us all.
'Other than fairly spectacular rare occurrences, such as shark attacks and maulings by wild animals, it is difficult to name any broad category of death that will take fewer lives than heterosexually transmitted Aids,' Mr Fumento wrote. 'A middle-class, non-intravenous-drug-abusing heterosexual in America has less chance of getting Aids in the next year than of being struck by lightning.'
British commentators, such as James Le Fanu, a London GP and newspaper columnist, quickly took up the cause. The risk of heterosexual Aids, he said recently, is 'tantamount to being struck by lightning'.
Britain took a lead in promoting safe sex. Advertising campaigns of icebergs and tombstones gave way to a feeling in some quarters that heterosexuals were being panicked into believing in a sexual apocalypse.
Mr Neil said yesterday that initially he gave prominence to Aids 'dissidents' because it was right for a newspaper to publish information that others were trying to suppress. However, he added, recent events have shown that 'the facts were beginning to swing the dissidents' way'.
Undoubtedly there were gay activists who feared that the Government would downgrade Aids as a sexually transmitted disease of a minority. But the Government's strategy, clearly influenced by the views of respected scientists who had genuine cause for concern about the spread of HIV in the mid Eighties, could only have been right given the lethality of HIV and the threat it posed - and still poses - to the wider population.
Last year, when Roy Cornes, a 24- year-old haemophiliac, was found to have infected at least four of his girlfriends with HIV, heterosexual transmission briefly became reality. However, when it subsequently emerged that anal intercourse had taken place, newspapers were quick to dismiss the warning of senior health officials as ill-founded and irresponsible. 'Straight' sex, they said, was safe.
What is remarkable in the story of Aids is the extent to which some newspapers have highlighted the views of a fringe minority who have no proven track record in Aids research. A number of articles on Aids in the Sunday Times, for example, have extensively quoted Gordon Stewart, who retired as professor of public health in Glasgow nearly 10 years ago and is on record as saying that 'the alarm (about heterosexual Aids) was based on the misapprehension that Aids was infectious'.
Here lies a clue to what is really behind much of the fuss over heterosexual Aids. Many of the proponents of the heterosexual myth also believe that Aids is a disease of lifestyle - of homosexuality and drug use - and not a syndrome caused by HIV. The Sunday Times itself has devoted pages to the discredited notion that HIV does not cause Aids, again using Professor Stewart's fringe views to support this.
Aids researchers and doctors in the front line can only hope that one myth will undermine the other.
In an Independent report on 21 May of views on the contribution of lifestyle to the Aids virus, we quoted Gordon Stewart as stating that 'the alarm . . . (about heterosexual Aids) was based on the misapprehension that Aids was infectious . . . '. Professor Stewart has pointed out that this was a misquote which first appeared in an article he wrote in the Daily Mail in April. The sentence should have read: 'The alarm . . . was raised on a misunderstanding about how Aids was infectious . . .'
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