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20 Years Ago in Discover: Misunderstanding AIDS

By Anne CasselmanApril 28, 2005 5:00 AM
December 1985 | Olof Wahlund


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In science, what we think is true often turns out to be wrong. In a December 1985 cover story, Discover reported “The Latest Scientific Facts” about AIDS, facts that we know today were misguided or misleading. “Heterosexuals are virtually risk free,” the article declared and went on to lay much of the blame for the epidemic on gay men. “Anal sex is the essential element in the AIDS story,” the story said. The virus “may have come [to the United States] by way of Haiti, a popular vacation spot for homosexuals.”

The article reflected the latest scientific thinking at the time and cultural biases. Discover senior editor John Langone interviewed more than a dozen leading epidemiologists in the United States, Britain, and France and consulted such publications as The Journal of the American Medical Association and The Lancet. Other groups blamed for the epidemic included three other H’s: Haitians, heroin abusers, and hemophiliacs. Evidence that heterosexual transmission of the virus could occur would not be widely recognized until the International AIDS Conference in Paris in 1986.

The magazine did find one scientist whose decidedly minority views turned out to be correct. William Haseltine, then a pathologist at Harvard University, argued that the virus was fast becoming a heterosexual disease. “To think that we’re so different from people in the Congo is a nice, comfortable position, but it probably isn’t so,” Haseltine told Discover. “It’s heterosexual promiscuity. The more lovers, the better the chance of being infected.”

In 1985 public ignorance of AIDS ran rampant. A major point of the Discover story was to reassure readers that they could not contract the virus through casual contact. Langone, now a contributor to The New York Times science pages, wrote that “it’s highly improbable that exposure to toilet seats, drinking glasses, doorknobs, showers, or food touched by an AIDS victim, or to sneezes, coughs, saliva, tears, or sweat of a victim, will result in an infection.”

Today the virus has spread throughout the world, increasingly by heterosexual sex. More than 20 million people have died from the disease. Nearly double that number live with HIV today.

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