Health ministers from 121 countries are being told here that public education is the key to combating AIDS. At an international conference in London yesterday, the first of this scope, world health officials heard that there may be neither a vaccine nor a medical cure for acquired immune deficiency syndrome ``for a number of years.''
Medical experts said that prevention efforts must be global in scope and should focus on public health programs designed to educate the public about the nature of the disease, which is largely sexually transmitted. Medical researchers say the AIDS virus also is transmitted through blood transfusions, infected intravenous needles, and during pregnancy.
The aim of public education on AIDS should be to change behavior, according to Britain's chief medical officer, Donald Acheson. ``If we are to succeed in slowing down or stopping the spread of this virus, rapid, profound, and widespread changes in human behavior will have to take place,'' Sir Donald said.
Such changes are beyond the medical profession, he added. ``Medical scientists will accomplish nothing without the help and guidance of not only politicians and religious leaders, but society as a whole,'' he said.
Britain's Secretary of State for Social Services, John Moore, summarized the aim of public education when he said, ``Only by influencing individual behavior and life styles can we hope to contain the spread of infection.''
Sponsored by the British government and the World Health Organization (WHO), the World Summit of Ministers of Health on Programs for AIDS Prevention is meeting Tuesday through Thursday to share information and to enlist support for WHO's efforts to control the spread of the disease and to care for AIDS patients.
The director of WHO's special program on AIDS, Jonathan Mann, said public education means confronting sensitive cultural and social practices which are often difficult to discuss openly.
WHO's director-general, Halfdan Mahler, told the London meeting that AIDS patients ``are entitled to humane and understanding care like any other people.''
WHO reported this week some 75,000 cases in 129 countries and estimates the actual number at twice that many. The largest number of cases is in the United States, which had reported more than 51,000 cases as of this month. Other countries reporting more than 1,000 cases each include Brazil, Britain, Canada, West Germany, France, Italy, Tanzania, and Uganda. Switzerland has the highest incidence of AIDS in Europe, some 355 reported cases.
National policies on AIDS prevention vary widely. A number of countries have started national testing programs, and many aim to screen foreign travelers and residents.