Leading Article: Aids: not an issue for moralisers

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FEW, if any, viruses can have so thoroughly entered the mainstream of everyday conversation as the Aids virus in the 10 years since its discovery. Nor has any been so thoroughly researched. Yet, as we report on page 8, no cure is in sight. This is bad news for the 17 million already infected and the 30-40 million expected by the World Health Organisation to be HIV positive by the end of the millennium.

It is also disturbing on another level. We have become accustomed to believing that a cure can be found for most ailments if enough money and effort are dedicated to the task. The great pandemics of the past that were often accepted fatalistically as the work of an angry deity are now known to have had relatively simple origins which science was just too primitive to deal with.

Today, even cancer, one of the most stubborn and mysterious of all afflictions, is slowly yielding its secrets and will one day be defeated, or so we assume. Advances in biochemistry and genetic engineering are expected to bring under control a still wider range of human ailments and imperfections. If this confidence in scientific advance has wobbled recently it is mainly because nature has revealed a tendency to think up new lines of attack on the human organism, as it is now doing by learning to circumvent antibiotics.

Probably a cure for Aids will eventually be found, so faith in the logic of scientific advance need not be abandoned altogether. But for the present, Aids seems unique in the hopelessness it engenders. A cure seems so far off as to be irrelevant to anyone living today. While research continues, therefore, the most urgent task is to limit its spread and learn to prolong the lives of those who are HIV positive - who can survive for 10 years or more.

So much is known about how Aids is transmitted that it ought to be easy to control. Indeed, it is unusual among pandemics in that a sufficiently well-informed individual can mostly avoid infection. This is why so many people in the developed world feel uninvolved, or critical of those who succumb. But sexual behaviour is the least controllable and most private of human activities. Moral judgements are as out of place here as in the most affected parts of Africa and Asia, where education, condoms and clean needles are scarce. Even in supposedly educated Britain, experts say we are in the early stages of a long epidemic that will affect one in 10 heterosexuals. If Aids is to be controlled and eventually defeated it must be treated on the same moral level as any other disease.