Leading Article: Straight talk about Aids

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The Independent Online
TWO POINTS jump out from the harrowing reports on our Home News pages today about heterosexuals and Aids. One is that, despite recent claims to the contrary, scientists can now be confident that men and women do infect each other with the Aids virus through straightforward vaginal intercourse. The other is that many carriers have already contracted HIV in this way - and not through homosexual activity, intravenous drug use or anal sex. How quickly their number will grow is hard to say; but an early indicator is that, in March, heterosexual intercourse clearly overtook drug injection as a cause of new British Aids cases.

Different factors have conspired to obscure the heterosexual spread of the virus. Women who contracted the virus after sleeping with men but who also take drugs have usually been hastily classified as needle-related cases of the illness. Those classifications may now have to be revised; in many cases it will turn out that it was through the intercourse, rather than the drugs, that the infection was transferred. There is also a statistical problem: precisely because they believe themselves to be less at risk, heterosexuals are less likely to have HIV tests - and so a smaller proportion of those who have the virus has been identified.

Taken together, this new information provides a compelling vindication of the Government's much-criticised publicity campaign to wake up the broader population, not just gays and drug users, to the Aids issue. Far from making bogus threats, the Health Education Authority seems to have spent rather well the pounds 20m it has devoted to Aids advertising since 1987. Only a small proportion of it - about pounds 1 in every pounds 16 this year - has been targeted specifically at homosexuals. Most of the rest goes on high-profile television campaigns, addressed to society at large. The recent 'personal testimonies' campaign, in which victims of the virus (not actors) told their stories, struck a wise balance between heterosexuals and homosexuals. For the public, the moral is that safe sex remains as important as ever.

There are worrying questions to be asked, however, about how British newspapers have reported the advance of medical knowledge about the virus. Those that were quickest to dismiss Aids as a 'gay plague' also tried to downplay early evidence of HIV transmission by heterosexuals by linking it to anal, rather than vaginal, intercourse. Doctors are now rightly furious that this sort of reporting has undermined their attempts to persuade heterosexuals, particularly those in stable relations with an HIV carrier, to take seriously the risk of infection. Exaggerating the Aids risk to heterosexuals does no service to society. But it is more harmful still to offer heterosexuals a false sense of security about their chance of catching the virus. While the research continues, heterosexuals will do best to assume the worst.

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