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Fear of AIDS

doctor's office


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JOANNA B. PINNEO

In the doctor's office where Jane works, she talks with Dr. Jeffrey Paonessa and Carol Ann Bryant. Along with fighting AIDS, Paonessa fights another disease. He calls it "FRAIDS: the fear of AIDS."


By ROY PETER CLARK
Special To The Times

Jane was livid when she heard about the hand-written sign on the bathroom door. A woman from the business office, confused and in a panic, had posted it as a warning: SOMEONE WITH AIDS JUST USED THIS BATHROOM.

By now, Jane had lots of practical knowledge about the disease, and some training to go with it. You need savvy and cool when working with cancer and AIDS patients. There is a lot to fear working with a fatal illness. That's why it is important to fight against the irrational fears, the ones with no scientific basis.

She knew one thing for sure: "You don't get AIDS from a toilet seat!"

And you don't get it from mosquito bites.

She also had learned that you can't catch the HIV virus easily. She wished she had known that earlier. It would have saved her months of needless worry. But at least she knew it now.

She knew you could live with a person with AIDS and, following some simple precautions, rest easy. You could wash at the same sink, eat at the same table, shake hands, hug, kiss lightly, and, yes, use the same toilet.

There was no evidence, none, that a co-worker, a medical worker, a sibling, a teacher, a classmate, had contracted the virus through normal, everyday contact.

Jane also learned how people became infected. The newspapers had once squeamishly described the process as "the exchange of bodily fluids." That meant blood to blood, or semen to blood contact. Intravenous drug users got it by sharing needles: AIDS had been roaring through poor urban areas via that transmission.

Gay men got it through sexual contact, especially anal intercourse. When the penis was inserted into the anus, it could tear the tissues, providing tiny gateways to infection.

The use of latex condoms provided significant, though not foolproof, protection. Unprotected sex, with multiple partners, whose sexual history you did not know, increased the risk of infection. That is why gay men who frequented places such as bathhouses for anonymous sexual liaisons were at special risk. It was hard for Jane to imagine Mick in such a place, but little could surprise her now.

Heterosexual transmission was possible, but harder. An infected husband could infect his wife, especially through sores or tears in the vaginal tissue. It was harder still for an infected woman to give it to her man, although female prostitutes had been known to infect their clients.

A pregnant woman could pass it on to the fetus, though a mother who takes AZT improves the chances that her child will not be infected.

Early in the history of the disease, many people, especially hemophiliacs, were infected through blood transfusions and other blood products. But the latest testing methods were much safer. There was virtually no danger in giving or receiving blood.

Of one thing Jane was absolutely certain: You don't get AIDS from toilet seats.

"That's wrong!" she told the woman who put up the sign.

When Jane's boss, Dr. Jeffrey Paonessa, learned of the incident, the sign came down, and the person who put it up was required to take an AIDS education program.

"Think about what Jane must have been thinking when that sign went up," says Dr. Paonessa. Jane uses that bathroom. She's married to a person with AIDS. Maybe she'll be ostracized.

So along with fighting AIDS, Dr. Paonessa fights another disease. He calls it "FRAIDS: the fear of AIDS." He has seen it everywhere.

He has seen it in gay men with long-time gay companions. He has seen it in gay men who are in complete denial about their sexual orientation, even after they have infected their straight partners. He has seen it in the straight spouses of infected partners. Jane fell into this last category.

Despite her experience and training, Jane couldn't fight off her own case of FRAIDS. She continued to be tested, every three months in Spain between 1989-92, once more since she moved to St. Pete, each test coming out negative. Her insistence on being tested defied all reason and science.

Dr. Paonessa explains that we now have better and better statistics about AIDS testing. He says that most people who show HIV-positive do so within three to six months of having sex with an infected person. Some show positive within one year. "After that," he says, "it's exceedingly rare and possibly not true." A person who does not have sex for a year and tests negative is certainly safe. A person like Jane, who did not have sex for several years, is as safe as you could be.

"Jane is safe," he says.

She could barely accept the verdict of those three little words. And if she could not persuade herself of her safety, how could she hope to get on with her life, to think about the possibility of a new relationship?

That thought assumed a new urgency the day that a building contractor named John walked into Dr. Paonessa's office. He had been hired to expand and spruce up the place. He was just what the doctor ordered, a tall figure with a burlap voice who was immediately attracted to Jane. Before long, he asked her for a date.

THE SERIES: This is the 20th installment of a 29-part story.
Next: Chapter 21, Jane in Love


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