Top public health officers from 11 major cities called urgently today for federal help in combatting Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS), stressing that local authorities cannot cope alone with "one of the most serious public health crises of this decade."
Participants in the unusual meeting also appealed for greater calm in dealing with the deadly syndrome, saying that unfounded public anxiety is adding to the burden of local health authorities.
Dr. Mervyn Silverman, San Francisco's director of health, said at a news conference that AIDS begs for federal funding both in researching its causes, which are unknown, and in providing "a whole continuum of care" to its victims.
"There's no way the local governments can handle the research on their own," Silverman said in an interview. "As for treatment, other health problems aren't commanding the kind of fiscal outlays of AIDS, and we don't have a Heart Association or a Cancer Society to help with the financial burden."
Officials here cited what they said was an estimate by the National Institutes of Health that each of the first 1,000 AIDS patients--there are now more than 1,700 nationwide, and the number of new cases is doubling every six months--has cost more than $60,000 to treat.
"That may even be a low estimate," Silverman said. "I'm talking about total care."
Dr. Ernest Hardaway, the District of Columbia commissioner of public health, said, "It's one of those health emergencies that we were just not prepared for, budgetarily."
"How many states can deal with this themselves?" Hardaway asked. "Can Kansas deal with this by itself? No. If the federal government doesn't help with this, then what is it for?"
AIDS, an often fatal disease first diagnosed in 1979, suppresses the body's immune system and makes it unable to fight off rare cancers and infections. Three-quarters of its victims are homosexual or bisexual men with many sex partners, and many scientists believe it is spread primarily through close sexual contact or exposure to the blood or blood products of people who have it.
Dr. Stuart H. Shapiro, Philadelphia's health commissioner and the host of the meeting, said the U.S. Conference of Local Health Officers is urging President Reagan to sign a $30 million authorization for an interagency emergency health fund, which recently passed both houses of Congress and is on the president's desk. The conference also supports a $12 million supplemental appropriation for AIDS that is now in House-Senate conference.
Today's meeting allowed health officers from New York, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Washington, New Orleans, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Newark, Baltimore and Kansas City, as well as Prince George's County, to compare notes on the prevention and treatment of AIDS.
"We're here to learn some of the 'best ways,' " said Dr. Martin Finn, public health medical director of Los Angeles County.
Jeff Levy of the National Gay Task Force, who addressed the group, said local health authorities generally have shown much greater initiative than has the federal government in addressing the AIDS crisis.
"All the public health officers I've dealt with are keenly aware of what needs to be done," he said. "They've fallen short only to the extent that they had limited resources."