Leading Article: Aids stories that could cost lives

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The Independent Online
MANY readers will sympathise with the horror and confusion described on our home news pages today by a woman whose dentist died of Aids. The human immuno-deficiency virus (HIV) is far from the only foe that continues to elude medical science. But it is unique in that half of the 14 million people it has infected, according to estimates published yesterday to coincide with World Aids Day, are aged between 15 and 24. Hence the terror that it inspires.

This intense public consciousness, whether informed or not, has helped to attract money and resources to the fight against the virus. It has also helped to remind doctors and scientists to keep patients' interests uppermost in their minds. But public curiosity can sometimes be unhelpful, as recent coverage of one important Aids issue demonstrates.

Aids, as its name implies, is not a disease but a syndrome - a susceptibility to other ailments that include pneumonia and tuberculosis. Scientists know that it is caused by HIV, but they do not yet fully understand how. The virus can lie latent for many years before being manifested in full-blown Aids; it is also unusually subversive in attacking the immune system itself, which is the tool used by the body to defeat other viruses.

Five years ago, one scientist began to question whether the causal link between HIV and Aids was proven. The overwhelming majority of specialists now believe that it is; as our knowledge of medicine has grown, many of those doubts have been laid to rest.

Valid though it was for specialists to ask such a question, at least one newspaper has seized on it and turned it into a story suggesting that an overzealous Aids 'establishment', driven by a variety of crusading motives, has invented the 'myth' that HIV causes Aids.

This reassuring message sells papers. Unfortunately, it may also cost lives. Whatever the debates among scientists, governments should still be prudent in their policies on public health. People should still use condoms during sexual intercourse outside a long- term relationship; drug addicts should refrain from sharing needles; and those who handle blood products should exercise the utmost care. This unequivocal message must reach young people. Doing anything to obscure or confuse it is irresponsible and dangerous.