A group of top Washington-area health officials sought yesterday to reassure the public that panic over the deadly disease AIDS is unwarranted, and, in particular, that donating or receiving blood is not a health risk.
The group, headed by D.C. Health Commissioner Dr. Ernest Hardaway, stressed that casual contact does not transmit AIDS, and that only two groups are at definite risk: sexually active homosexual or bisexual men with multiple partners, and drug addicts who use needles.
Officials from the D.C. Health Department, the American Red Cross, the D.C. Medical Society and the D.C. AIDS Task Force said they feared that "public hysteria"--fed by confusing and conflicting media coverage--would curtail Red Cross blood supplies because of fear of contracting Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome.
"We are stating emphatically that there is no risk of contracting AIDS from the process of donating blood, or from the equipment used," which is sterile and disposable, said Hardaway.
The Red Cross blood supply, while still sufficient, has dwindled in recent months, according to Dr. Paul R. McCurdy, the agency's director of blood services. Donations have recently fallen from about 800 units daily to 700, he said, although the agency is not sure how much of the drop was caused by fear of AIDS.
The Food and Drug Administration has recommended that homosexual males with multiple partners refrain from donating blood. The Red Cross gives potential donors a printed message outlining the four diseases that can spread through transfusions: AIDS, syphilis, hepatitis and malaria.
McCurdy said the Red Cross asks potential AIDS carriers to refrain from donating. He said persons who arrive at blood centers but subsequently decide not to donate blood are not asked their reasons, meaning no public acknowledgement of being an AIDS carrier is required.
Since medical investigators have yet to identify the agent that causes AIDS, there is no way to detect contaminated blood. But because of Red Cross screening of donors, McCurdy said, "I doubt there is any contaminated blood on our shelves."
Since the disease was identified in 1981, about 1,700 cases of AIDS have claimed more than 500 lives. In the Washington metropolitan area, 36 cases have resulted in 14 deaths among a population of 3 million, Hardaway said. Dr. Dennis O'Leary, head of the D.C. Medical Society, said that given the relatively small number of victims, "the concern is overblown."
Nationally, AIDS has triggered widespread fears, with reports of patients delaying surgery because of concern about blood transfusions; nurses refusing to treat AIDS patients, and morticians refusing to handle corpses of AIDS victims.
"Victims are being unnecessarily and undesirably ostracized," the group said in a statement. Hardaway said the Washington area has been spared such hysteria, partly because the health department, in cooperation with the city's active gay community, has taken the initiative to try to educate the public.
Activists in the homosexual community have been recommending "limiting partners and being somewhat more cautious about their sexual partners," Hardaway said. Incidence of the fatal disease may be related to "promiscuity of a sexual manner," Hardaway said.
Recent Haitian emigrants to the United States have been identified as a potential high-risk group regarding AIDS. Hardaway said that public health officials no longer consider Haitians at risk, but a spokesman at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta said yesterday that the CDC still considers Haitians potentially at risk.