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A letter arrives in the mail, addressed to you, from something called the American AIDS Alert Association (AAAA). "Ref: Possible HIV Infection," it says at the top, which makes you feel a bit short of breath. "We regret to inform you that someone who claims to have been intimate with you within the past 10 years, now claims to be HIV-Positive and is concerned for your health...."
Who? The letter doesn't say. "It may take up to 10 years for symptoms to surface. In the interim you could look and feel fine and still be infected." At this moment, about the only thing you're sure of is that you neither look nor feel fine. Although you probably aren't infected, the letter goes on, the only way to be certain is to get an AIDS test. This is all absolutely secret, you are assured; no record will exist after the letter is mailed.
So there you are. Mentally reviewing names, faces, trying not to panic, thinking it's a prank -- sure, it has to be; would you really just get a letter about something so serious?
Yes, you would. And you will, if your name is mentioned as a past sexual partner by an HIV-positive person who calls the American AIDS Alert Association's Amnesty Hotline. The AAAA has been deluging the news media with packets of desktop-published literature containing alarming information about AIDS and calling for a strong public response to fight the spread of HIV. Volunteers have also been recruited to pass out fliers, according to AAAA founder and chairman Bruce A. Gorcyca.
The Miami-based group's purpose, Gorcyca explains, is to tell the people of Dade County "the truth about AIDS transmission," as well as to lobby for mandatory statewide AIDS testing for everyone who applies for a marriage or driver's license. Gorcyca says his organization, which was incorporated in late July, is funded from private donations and twenty-dollar annual membership fees. He claims he has amassed 1800 members statewide, most of them health-care professionals who are disenchanted with the government's response to AIDS.
Gorcyca, an ex-IRS field agent who says he's a former Red Cross volunteer, is among a vocal contingent convinced that public health officials aren't telling the whole horrible story about AIDS. To avoid mass panic, he asserts, the U.S. government is covering up facts about HIV transmission and the true numbers of people who are HIV-positive. "I'm just appalled, angry, frustrated, and concerned that people are not getting the message that it's far more serious than anyone thought," he says.
AIDS activists and public-health experts readily agree that the U.S. is in the grip of an epidemic. In 1992 a federal study found Miami to have the highest rate of HIV infection of any city in the nation -- 1 in every 40 people. And most experts agree that figure does not include at least 10,000 people in Dade County who are HIV-positive but as-yet undiagnosed. Many are concerned, however, that other statistics Gorcyca provides are dubious, and they characterize some of his proposals as fearmongering.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, for example, disputes Gorcyca's claims that the AIDS virus can survive outside the body for seven days or more; that it is possible to become infected via saliva, tears, urine, or sweat; that the blood supply in the U.S. is not virtually HIV-free as Red Cross and government authorities say; that half of all condoms sold don't stop the AIDS virus; and that 7000 people in the U.S. have become infected with HIV with no known source of exposure, and that the government is trying to cover it up.
Government studies showed the AIDS virus outside the body to be "noninfectious within a couple of hours," asserts CDC spokesman Tom Skinner. Nowhere has it ever been proven that the virus is capable of being transmitted through saliva, tears, urine, or sweat, he adds. And though he confirms that natural-membrane condoms permit the passage of HIV, he says latex condoms are more than 95 percent effective. The mysterious AIDS cases to which Gorcyca refers are still being studied, Skinner explains, but they are not expected to reveal any new means of transmission.
Regardless of the gravity of the epidemic and the need for public education, local AIDS activists generally agree that mailing letters to alleged sexual partners of alleged HIV victims carries an unacceptable risk of abuse. "I see it as a very cruel practical joke," says Cathy Lynch, executive director of Health Crisis Network. "There are so many horrible possibilities with this. The possibility that it's false information, the possibility of scaring people to do reckless and destructive things both against themselves and others."
"He's using scare tactics," agrees Christine Nolan, executive director of Body Positive. "In 1987 blood banks began notifying people by mail [of their HIV-positive status], and there were several suicides."
Despite the controversial character of the letter-notification plan, however, Robyn Blumner, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, says there's nothing illegal about it, even if incorrect information is passed, because it is a matter between a private organization and private citizens. She predicts the AAAA might receive more flak for its mandatory-AIDS-testing stance, because the requirements would violate the constitutional right to privacy.