West German prostitutes are transmitting the AIDS virus to American soldiers who are then passing the virus to their wives and girlfriends, according to Senate testimony and confirmation by the Army yesterday.
Dr. William Haseltine, an AIDS researcher at the Harvard Medical School, raised the issue in his testimony.
"Based on what Dr. Haseltine said, and our studies, there is a higher percentage of heterosexual contacts [causing AIDS infection and] which seems to be correlated with prostitute contact," said Tansill Johnson, spokeswoman for the Army surgeon general.
A screening at the U.S. Army Hospital Center in West Berlin found that four of 74 soldiers who sought treatment at a venereal disease clinic throughout June had been infected by the AIDS virus.
Haseltine cited this as evidence that the men had been exposed to the virus by prostitutes, noting a recent survey found the AIDS infection among German prostitutes to be a problem of "major proportion" because of their high rate of drug abuse.
"Nationwide, about 20 percent of all prostitutes in Germany are infected," Haseltine told the Senate appropriations subcommittee on health yesterday. Army spokesmen later confirmed the numbers. Only 1 percent of prostitutes who are licensed by the government and given routine health exams are reported to be infected, but the infection rate is 20 percent to 50 percent among unlicensed prostitutes, many of whom abuse drugs.
An 18-month follow-up check of soldiers infected by the AIDS virus conducted by the Army showed a pattern of "continuously worsening disease."
In another Army study, as yet unpublished, a doctor at Walter Reed Army Medical Center found a little more than 1 percent of 279 soldiers tested at Fort Bragg, N.C., in 1984 had been exposed to the AIDS virus, according to hospital spokesman Pete Esker.
The problem of AIDS transmission within the military and to the heterosexual community has received intense interest recently. In a special briefing last week, top AIDS researchers from the federal government warned the public of the dangers of exposure to the AIDS virus from prostitutes.
The Army is rushing production on a videotape on AIDS to be shipped to all commanders and troops by mid-October, according to Esker.
Also by mid-October, Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger is expected to decide whether to require AIDS screening for all 2.3 million active duty military personnel. The Armed Services Epidemiological Board, a civilian panel, has been studying the issue and sent its recommendations to the secretary, acccording to Dr. Julian Barber, an assistant in the Defense Department's Office of Health Affairs.
Barber said the Army has been holding briefings on AIDS for soldiers and their families on overseas and domestic bases. "On the local level, there's a lot of counseling going on to personnel," he said.
A memo on AIDS was circulated this week to Army public affairs offices that includes warnings to male soldiers to use condoms and avoid sex with "prostitutes and other promiscuous individuals."
An August Army tally found there were 60 persons on active duty and 30 Army dependents with AIDS, according to Johnson, the Army surgeon general's spokeswoman. She said an Army memo noted the majority of cases originated from "heterosexual contact, IV [intravenous] drug use and blood transfusions."
Yesterday's Senate testimony gave new emphasis to the problem of AIDS transmission to the population outside of the risk groups of homosexual men, intraveneous drug users and their sex partners.
"Unless sexual practices change dramatically in this country, it seems likely that infection of our young population with the AIDS virus may reach similar high levels," Haseltine said, comparing AIDS exposure to the dramatic growth of the sexually transmitted disease known as chlamydia, which he said has infected 20 to 30 percent of college women.