Beware false comfort for heterosexuals

Tom Wilkie warns against those who preach that the HIV virus is not a danger for us all
Let us now praise Norman Fowler. Alone among Margaret Thatcher's cabinet ministers Lord Fowler, as he now is, saved thousands, if not tens of thousands, of British lives.

For when he was Secretary of State for Health, Lord Fowler had the political courage to listen to and act upon the advice of his Chief Medical Officer, Donald Acheson. Sir Donald had warned that if the Government did not act, the country faced an epidemic of the new, incurable and fatal disease Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (Aids). The problem was that any action would involve the British Government talking frankly about sex.

Although the official safe sex campaigns were criticised at the time, the fact remains that the British Government acted earlier and more wisely than most other Western countries. About 9,000 Britons have died of the disease whereas in the United States, with just four times our population level, the "moral" majority intervened and more than 318,000 Americans have died. In France, Italy and Spain, where no coherent public health messages were disseminated, the incidence of new Aids cases is running at up to four times the British rate.

The projected British Aids epidemic failed to materialise in part because of social factors - Britons are more boringly monogamous than anyone had believed possible - and in part because of the Government's safe sex campaign.

But, by a logic that defeats rational dissection, the very success of the safe sex campaign has now been transmuted into evidence that it was never needed at all.

Yesterday, the Daily Mail launched a broadside against the Aids lobby which had foisted the "myth" of heterosexual Aids upon an innocent and unsuspecting British population at great cost to the taxpayer.

On Monday of next week, Neville Hodgkinson, the former science correspondent of the Sunday Times, publishes a densely written book Aids - the failure of contemporary science (Fourth Estate), which tries to justify the bizarre thesis he first propounded in the pages of the Sunday Times, that HIV is not responsible for Aids.

He argues, in the face of all scientific evidence, that HIV, if it exists at all, is but a harmless passenger or spectator, and that the devastating destruction of the immune system suffered by those with Aids results from a lifestyle of drug abuse and/or promiscuous anal sex.

The net effect of both campaigns is to diminish the danger of Aids and relegate it as truly a gay plague so that heterosexuals in Britain can screw without scruple - and, especially, without condoms. It is the logic of the man who fell from the top of the Empire State Building who was heard from the first floor window saying to himself "so far, so good".

Globally, in 1996, Aids is a disease of heterosexuals, although gay men remain the most affected group in western countries and the death toll among them is terrible. Exact figures are not available, but it seems probable that at least 5,000 gay men have died from Aids in Britain and more than 200,000 in the US.

If there is any consolation or comfort to be gained from this tragic waste of human life, these men did not die in vain, in so far as their deaths have acted as a global early-warning signal. A touching analogy is with the delicate canaries that coal-miners used to take with them down the pit, because these fragile birds were more exquisitely sensitive to danger than the miners themselves.

There are signs, however, that the signals are not being heeded. In Britain today, there are more than 7,000 men and women who have been infected with HIV through heterosexual intercourse. Some of them got infected abroad, through holiday romances or casual encounters on business trips.

The infection rate among gays is falling, but that among heterosexuals is rising. By the end of the century, according to the official estimates, there will be about 1,200 new cases of Aids among British gays and about 525 among heterosexuals.

Every case of Aids is an individual tragedy, but that the absolute numbers are so small is a cause to rejoice not to curse the money that was so well spent in the past.