BOSTON -- Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, one of the sanest men in the anti-AIDS brigade and its five-star head, has asked physicians to become the retail purveyors of AIDS information. In an editorial in the Journal of the American Medical Association, he tells doctors to overcome their own reticence and advise patients how to guard against AIDS.
''My moral and religious background has made it difficult for me, as it may be for you, to discuss sexual issues in public,'' he writes. But the alternative to frankness, he notes, may be death. In the editorial, he goes on to recommend explicitly that doctors encourage and teach the use of latex condoms with a spermicide for patients who are not certain their partners are free of the infection.
All of this must be applauded. But I find myself skeptical about giving doctors the role as sex educators, let alone sexual-disease educators. I am even more uneasy with a pattern emerging, a pattern of handing over the job of AIDS education to the authorities.
At the risk of generalization, doctors are notoriously poor communicators. They are often rushed, and often as inarticulate as their handwriting is illegible. The average patient has trouble getting a straight story about a hernia.
Until recently, doctors had little more training in human sexuality than a Reader's Digest subscriber. They've had, as Koop admits, a history of reticence in dealing with sex. Few physicians know which patients are sexually active. Furthermore, physicians by definition see people only when they are patients. They are unlikely to come into contact with the next most vulnerable portion of our healthy population: the young.
Maybe with Koop's encouragement, the front-line medical community will join the fight. But I am worried that the rest of us delude ourselves with the comforting notion that we can leave the epidemic up to THEM -- the officialdom of doctors and teachers and government agencies.
As someone living in a college town, I am aware that AIDS has barely pierced the consciousness of the younger generation. It is there as an anxiety, but it has hardly begun to change behavior -- particularly among the younger males.
In my small and unscientific sample of parents, I have encountered few fathers who have told their sons more than to ''be careful out there.'' I know only one who gave his son not just the condoms but the accompanying lecture.
For the most part, the young are still more worried about appearances -- awkwardness -- than about the risks of AIDS. It is difficult for them to talk to each other about disease, about monogamy, about testing and protecting -- to take sex so dead seriously. We can't wait around for the annual checkup to impart these messages.
Let the surgeon general enlist his troops. But day to day, person to person, talking about AIDS is a job for civilians. The battery of educators, journalists and public-health officials is crucial for leadership and backup. But No. 1 among the civilians are parents. Weare just plain drafted into thisone.
This is not a crisis to be left to the experts. Koop's advice to the doctors is good advice for parents: talk frankly. About risks. About tests. About the use and limits of condoms. In the AIDS era of cautious courtship, anything but frank and accurate and open talk is too little.