Because of an editing error, the administration's plan to test 45,000 Americans voluntarily for AIDS was incorrectly described in yesterday's editions. It should have been described as the least controversial of the president's AIDS policies. (Published 6/7/87)
The Third International Conference on AIDS ended yesterday the way it began, with boos and hisses for the Reagan administration.
Although thousands of the world's AIDS experts converged here to share research and chart new directions, the week-long meeting had a political cast that bothered many of them.
President Reagan in his first major speech on the AIDS epidemic set the tone on the eve of the conference, when he called for much wider use of "routine" -- by which he meant regular -- testing of individuals to determine whether they are infected with the virus.
"The problem of AIDS has the president's complete attention," Dr. Otis R. Bowen, secretary of health and human services, told conference delegates to a chorus of jeers. Bowen avoided direct mention of mandatory testing. And toward the end of his talk he won applause by saying that acquired immune deficiency syndrome is far from an "us-versus-them" issue. "It is truly just an 'us' thing," he said.
Bowen later announced details of a voluntary AIDS testing plan under which 45,000 Americans would be asked to be tested anonymously in an effort to track the spread of the disease. The study, one of the most controversial of Reagan's anti-AIDS program, would cost about $18 million.
An estimated 1.5 million people may carry the AIDS virus, Bowen said, "But I don't think anyone knows for certain. But we need to know for certain. For that reason there will be a testing of about 45,000 individuals, properly selected throughout the population."
One problem is that information on human sexual practices, used in reaching the estimate, is decades old.
Reagan's proposed routine-testing policy has divided senior officials in the administration and is opposed by most public health officers in the United States and abroad. By the time Bowen offered closing remarks at the conference, he, too, was booed.
"We all came here to find out what was going on in areas of research we don't often see," said Dr. Gerald H. Friedland, from New York's Albert Einstein Medical School. "There is no room for political activism at a medical conference."
Earlier this week critics of administration policy distributed a leaflet urging that Bowen be booed upon speaking. "The politics of AIDS as defined by the Reagan administration and the U.S. Congress shows ignorance and contempt . . . ," it said. "This is your opportunity to send a clear message to the world that to end the AIDS pandemic we need research, not forced testing; education, not legislation; and health care, not discrimination."
Many of the participants said they were encouraged by the enormous turnout -- more than 6,000 scientists registered and thousands of papers were presented. And although much of the science presented was not new, there was more optimism within the research community than at many previous AIDS meetings.
"Two years ago you could find 1,000 fine doctors who would say you could never stop the natural progression of this virus," said Dr. Samuel Broder of the National Cancer Institute. "Now you can hardly find anyone. The thing that really emerged here is proof that the use of the scientific method will speed our ability to fight this disease."
Although the failure of an American test of an AIDS vaccine in chimpanzees received much attention, researchers said that failed experiments are a normal part of science and that there is a consensus that a useful vaccine is years away.
At the closing session yesterday, Dr. June Osborn, dean of the University of Michigan School of Public Health, told the audience that researchers had produced "sound and careful progress" in almost every area of scientific pursuit.
Although there was more data presented this week than at any previous scientific meeting on AIDS -- or perhaps any other disease -- it became clear that much more needs to be collected before the virus is fully understood.
Huge questions remain about the spread of AIDS, among them: What is the relationship between the newly discovered virus in Nigeria called HIV-2 and the main AIDS virus, HIV? At what point is a person most likely to pass an infection on to a sex partner? What are the principal reasons that some people who have been exposed to the virus many times do not get infected, while others with only one or a few exposures do? Another area of dispute, and intense interest, is how quickly the virus is spreading in the heterosexual community.
Although the rate of growth appears to be slowing somewhat, it will take far more epidemiological information before scientists can be sure.
Researchers this week said that victims of genital herpes may face triple the usual risk of contracting the AIDS virus if they have sex with an HIV-infected partner. The study, conducted by Dr. H. Hunter Handsfield, suggests that genital and anal sores make it much easier for the AIDS virus to enter the body.
For the most part, the meeting was a gathering of distant friends. French and American scientists, who have in the past been locked in disputes about who disovered the AIDS virus, amicably traded gossip.Staff writers Boyce Rensberger and Don Colburn contributed to this report.