The Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee has unanimously approved a bill that will provide almost a billion dollars for AIDS treatment, research and education. There is not a penny, however, for testing to find out who is infected with the virus and therefore capable of infecting others.
It is explained that testing is too controversial right now. A matter of civil liberties. Later, we are told, there will be another bill, with funds for voluntary testing. What kind of voluntary testing? Well, routine testing is also very controversial, so we will probably have to wait a good deal longer for Congress to muster the courage to pay for large-scale testing.
The Centers for Disease Control estimate that 1.5 million of us carry the AIDS virus and that only about 10 percent know they have the virus. Most of the unknowing 90 percent will continue to have sexual relations with partners who also don't know they are sleeping with carriers of the virus.
Yet most public health officials are focusing on actual AIDS cases rather than also testing widely to find out much more accurately than is now known where in the population the AIDS virus is moving. There is indeed much talk about general education and prevention, but there is also much righteous resistance by many public health officials to widespread routine testing.
Yet, as Dr. James Curran, director of the AIDS program for the Centers for Disease Control, says, testing "has to become a standard medical practice." A test among other standard tests.
I would add, for example, that the test should be offered when women go for prenatal care, when patients are admitted to a hospital, when someone is treated at a clinic for sexually transmitted diseases. The test would not be mandatory, but it would be routinely offered.
And routine testing is different from the other kind of voluntary testing that requires, as Curran says, "an individual coming up to a doctor, if he has one, and saying, 'I want to be tested.' That takes a lot of guts. It's much better if the doctors make it available routinely."
Yet, to certain public health officials and certain homosexual rights activists, "routine testing" is a start on the slippery slope to detention camps. Accordingly, there has been considerable and effective internal political resistance to the concept.
One researcher, who has done valuable work on contact tracing of sexual partners among heterosexuals found to be infected with AIDS was pushed out of an important project on the ground that he is "an Orwellian fascist," because of his emphasis on testing. Another researcher, who is studying the spread of the virus, would not talk to me unless I agreed not to use his name. He thinks much of the present public health approach to AIDS is bizarrely out of focus, but he does not want to risk retaliation for what some would call his "insensitive" views.
Chris Norwood, a medical writer and author of a blessedly non-ideological new book, "Advice for Life: A Woman's Guide to AIDS Risks and Prevention," has written in Newsday of a recent meeting of the Public Health Association of New York City:
". . . It was very discouraging . . . to hear so many of the professionals gathered there hoot and laugh at proposals for routine HIV testing. . . . The objections to routine testing are always presented as a matter of 'civil rights.' In fact, it's an appalling abuse of people's civil rights . . . to withhold a test that could help save the lives of their loved ones. The people most massively deprived of routine access to testing are, of course, those with the weakest civil rights of all -- the large portion of the . . . population that depends on public health care."
Nonetheless, in demonstrations around the country, placards, waved by angry demonstrators urge: "TEST DRUGS, NOT PEOPLE."
And Dr. Mervyn F. Silverman, president of the American Foundation for AIDS Research, conjures up conspiracies as he says to The Post: "There is one big question about all this testing. Since there is no cure or vaccine, what is the administration planning to do with the person who's infected?"
What is Silverman, as a physician, planning to do with such a person? The earlier the infection is detected, the more chance a patient has to live longer and to better deal with side effects from drugs being used in his or her treatment. And through tracing the patient's sexual contacts, those lives can often be saved.
Was Dr. Silverman speaking as a physician or as a politician?