UNITED NATIONS, OCT. 20 -- The World Health Organization brought the issue of AIDS to the General Assembly today for the first time, in an attempt to show governments that the epidemic is not solely a health issue but a global threat with political, economic, social and ethical dimensions.
The day-long series of speeches was a consciousness-raising briefing for diplomats as well as a show of universal support for the central role that the U.N. specialized agency must play in coordinating the campaign against acquired immune deficiency syndrome.
In their opening speeches, U.N. officials focused on the threat the disease poses, beyond health, to the very fabric of society. They were joined in that warning by governmental representatives such as Dr. C. Everett Koop, the U.S. surgeon general, who delivered a highly charged and personalized plea as the American spokesman.
It was Koop, in fact, who cautioned that AIDS "can defeat a developing nation's hopes for the future" by decimating its educated elites, discouraging investment and tourism, diverting aid funds and rolling back gains on levels of infant mortality.
Koop called on the WHO to give high priority to efforts to make the world's blood supply safe for transfusions. He also criticized those medical workers who refuse to care for AIDS patients, saying that this "misinformed and fearful minority could destroy the fabric of traditional Hippocratic medicine."
U.N. Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar raised the ethics problem, warning that the target of governments "must not be people with AIDS" or groups "considered at highest risk." The fight against AIDS, he said, "is also a fight against fear. Let us not create new minorities and fashion new structures of discrimination."
Jonathan Mann, an American physician who heads the WHO task force on AIDS, also warned that fear and ignorance have fostered "thinly disguised prejudices about race, religion, social class, sex and nationality. As a result, AIDS now threatens free travel between countries and open international communication and exchange."
All the speakers appealed to governments to be more forthcoming in reporting AIDS cases. Mann noted progress in that regard -- 126 nations have now conceded the presence of the disease within their borders, double the number of a year ago. But as of today, only 62,438 cases have been reported, out of the 100,000 to 150,000 estimated to exist by the U.N. agency. Some 42,000 cases were reported by the United States.
Mann said the lack of data left WHO unable to project the probable spread of the disease beyond the vague and familiar figure of 500,000 to 3 million cases anticipated over the next five years. "AIDS cannot be stopped in any one country unless it is stopped in all countries," he warned.
A resolution on AIDS is expected to be adopted by acclamation Wednesday.