Two incidents in the last 10 days illustrate the need for a more intelligent response to AIDS. On Monday, two technicians from the city medical examiner's office refused to remove the body of an AIDS victim from his basement apartment, apparently believing that to do so would joepardize their own health. A week earlier, at a D.C. council hearing, council member John Ray pressed for action on his bill to prohibit insurers from using AIDS tests in assessing the insurability of persons seeking to buy health or life insurance policies.
Certainly the fear of the technicians is misguided. There is no indication that the AIDS virus can be transmitted by handling a dead body -- or even by caring for a live one. Public Health Commissioner Andrew McBride should be commended for traveling to the victim's apartment and personally moving the body, but he should not have to do that again.
The New England Journal of Medicine reported just this week on a study of people sharing households with AIDS patients. Researchers found that friends and relatives who live with and care for these patients do not contract the disease even when they share facilities, eating utensils and toothbrushes. This disease is hard to get. It is transmitted through sexual contact, intravenous injection and from mothers to unborn babies. On the other side are those, like Mr. Ray, who seem to shut their eyes to the very real and serious implications of the disease. Certainly people who have insurance and then contract AIDS must be covered, and that is being done. But to suggest that someone who already has AIDS antibodies in his blood should be able to buy a life or health insurance policy on the same terms as a healthy person is ridiculous. Scientists cannot say with certainty how many people with evidence of AIDS antibodies will contract the disease, but estimates are being raised rapidly. Perhaps a third will get it; perhaps they all will. But certainly the risk is great and cannot be ignored.
AIDS is invariably fatal. The majority of its victims are men in their twenties and thirties -- just when the actuarial tables indicate they should be healthiest. The government doesn't force companies to sell new health insurance policies at standard rates to people who smoke three packs a day and are 100 pounds overweight, because there is statistical evidence that they run a high risk of heart disease. Why should coverage for AIDS patients be different? Mr. Ray's approach to the disease, though surely well meant, is just as misplaced as others' fears of catching it in a laundromat or on a crowded bus.