Around the world members of several professions are working to stop the spread of the disease AIDS, or are seeking funds to support their proposals. It is not an easy task. It is hard enough to get the message out about how AIDS may be contracted, and how its spread can be stopped. But as physicians acknowledge, the further need to change peoples' behavior is harder still.
Donald R. Hopkins says a recent poll showed that AIDS is the disease that most concerns Americans. But at the same time, three-fourths of the people polled in Illinois ``reported they were taking no precautions'' against contracting AIDS. ``Part of our job,'' he says, ``should be to make such people understand that their actions are what matter.'' Dr. Hopkins is deputy director of the federal government's Centers for Disease Control.
As the Illinois poll indicated, many Americans not in high-risk groups are believed to be resisting the use of condoms, although medical experts say such use is the best way to ward off the possibility of contracting AIDS if the sexual history of one's partner is not known.
Nor is the difficulty of changing peoples' behavior patterns limited to the United States. For two years scientists studied the behavior of a group of prostitutes in an impoverished area of Nairobi, Kenya, to try to check on the spread of the AIDS virus. The women were told that using condoms would help prevent the spread of the disease. During that time substantially more of the women came to harbor the virus, but their use of condoms increased only very modestly.
Yet experts say people should not despair. ``On several previous occasions,'' Hopkins says, ``mankind has had to rise to analogous challenges.'' He mentions medieval plagues in Europe and the scourges that afflicted American Indians after their initial contacts with the white man.
In this newest challenge, Hopkins says, the main task should be to identify those afflicted with either the disease or its virus, ``seek to persuade them'' not to spread it through sexual or drug-abuse practices, and persuade unaffected people not to expose themselves to the virus. Medical experts and politicians say the last can be accomplished through monogamous relations with one's spouse, or by the use of condoms.
In the US several political leaders have taken the initiative in spreading information about the AIDS issue. Both Boston Mayor Raymond Flynn and Rep. Gary Studds (D) of Massachusetts plan to mail to all their constituents the AIDS report of US Surgeon General C.Everett Koop.
One North Carolina physician attending this week's Third International Conference on AIDS says he is planning such an education program with minorities, many of whose heterosexual populations statistically seem more prone to harboring the AIDS virus than do whites. The physician, who is white, has been seeking a grant for such work possible.
He acknowledges that minorities are likely to be suspicious of the motives of a white physician in trying to get segments of a population to employ devices that prevent conception. But he expects black leaders will give strong backing to such projects, thus dispelling most concerns.