ALL THE RECENT news on AIDS is bad.
The death of Rock Hudson last year raised public concern about the epidemic almost to the point of panic. But that reaction subsided for a time as people were reassured about the reliability of new tests for donated blood and the improbability of contracting the disease casually. Now, general concern is focused not so much on personal risk -- most cases continue to occur in the high-risk groups of male homosexuals and drug addicts -- but in the growing realization that this disease is having a deep impact on our society in a number of ways.
It is absorbing financial and other resources. AIDS patients require long-term care in hospitals and out-patient facilities, and the health care systems in such cities as New York and San Francisco are not prepared to handle the demand. Bellevue, a large and respected municipal hospital in New York devotes one out of every four beds in its department of medicine to AIDS patients. Most are hospitalized for months, and few have any private insurance. The Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta estimates that hospital expenditures for the first 10,000 AIDS patients -- there are now more than 16,000 -- were about $1.4 billion. The total economic cost to the nation of this first group of cases is estimated to come to $6 billion in health care, disability and lost productivity.
Private insurers were unprepared for the crisis since the invariably fatal disease hits primarily young people. Ninety percent of the victims are between 20 and 49 years old. It is becoming increasingly difficult for those in high-risk groups to get health and life insurance, and in the absence of private coverage, public funds must be used. In addition, many of the victims are, for all practical purposes homeless, rejected by disapproving or frightened friends and family, without employment and in need of emotional and psychological support. It must be given.
More important, there is bad news on the medical front. In spite of a stepped-up research program there is no sign of an imminent breakthrough to a cure. More than 8,000 American victims have already died; no one has recovered. The public has also learned that earlier assurances that only 5 to 10 percent of those who have been exposed to the virus will contract the disease were far too optimistic. Researchers have now raised that figure to at least a third. Estimates of expected future cases have, accordingly, been adjusted upward.
A Bellevue doctor, quoted recently in The New York Times, reflected the despair of those who deal with AIDS patients every day: "The cost is staggering, the grief is overwhelming, and there is no end in sight." Yet these physicians and others -- social workers, clergy, scientists -- continue to work and to hope. Others not directly involved can help by giving support to public funding for research, hospital and hospice care, and support services. A public resolve to provide care now and an eventual cure for those who suffer is the best response.