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Introduction Turning the pages of my Sunday newspaper recently, I came across a photograph of a man pushing another man's head down into a large bucket. Over the edge of the bucket emerges a pair of rubber gloves, like something struggling to clamber out. In the background there is one sign which reads "Gents Hairdresser", and another, handwritten on a piece of paper pinned up above the bucket - which reads "Free Head Dip". The accompanying article by Robin McKie is entitled "Aids scare is unkindest cut", and the caption immediately underneath the picture says simply "Lucky dip:Alan Cresswell disinfects a customer".' From the article I learned that Mr Cresswell "has found an unusual way to promote his barber's business in Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire. He has placed a dustbin full of disinfectant outside his shop and asked all customers to stick their heads in it". The local newspaper had apparently run a story about measures announced by local health officials to halt the spread of Aids through the use of infected barbers' scissors. McKie reports the words of the environmentalhealth officer involved, saying that "it's all got out of hand . . . We only wanted to change regulations governing sterilisationof instruments at acupuncturists and ear-piercers so that they covered hairdressers as well. It was a precautionary measure for the future. There's no Aids in Tewkesbury". He added: "This has been sensationalised by the local press". Then Dr Anthony Pinching from St Mary's Hospital in London is called in to deliverthe coup de grace to the story, explaining that "provided a barber's shop implements the standard hygiene measures that have been in common practice for decades, there is no danger of picking up the virus from scissors or razors". Elsewhere in the same edition of the Observer, generally held to be the only "serious" Sunday newspaper left in Britain, I read a much briefer piece under the heading "AIDS Challenge",which described how nurses at Prince Charles Hospital, Merthyr Tydfil "are threatening to take legal action against Mid-Glamorgan Health Authority if it fails to inform them when they are treating Aids victims. They complain that an Aids patient now at the hospital is being nursed by staff who were told only that they were I POLICING DESIRE dealing with 'a highly contagious case'". Now the Observer and Mr McKie, its Science Correspondent, might argue that by drawing attention to the situation in a small country town they are effectively helping to defuse an otherwise ridiculous situation resulting from press sensationalism. I am not convinced by such "explanations". Nor am I convinced by the words of the environmental officer that there is "no Aids in Tewkesbury". Still less am I convinced that such journalism contributes anything more than a sense of confused bewilderment to most readers. None of the thousands of people touched by this epidemic in Britain would take it so lightly. And particularly so in the context of the Welsh report, with its casual talk of "Aids victims" and the uncorrected assumption that Aids is a contagious condition, requiring extraordinary preventative measures in hospitals. If nurses are this worried, how is the rest of the population supposed to feel? What about the situation of people with Aids livingin the community - how will other people react to them, and how will they react to their illness? These are not questions that concern the Observer, which is quite content to peddle the same kind of trash on the subject of Aids as any of its "gutter press" rivals, from which it purports to hold itself aloof. A number of important points need at once to be established. Firstly, we must distinguish between a viral infection of the blood, HTLV3, or HJV (Human ImmunodeficiencyVirus) as it is now officially described, which attacks and may destroy the body's immune system, and is not contagious; and Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (Aids) which is the collective name given to a very wide range of opportunistic infectionswhich follow in the train of the virus, as a result of the body's weakened self-defences. Many of these are cancers and tumours that are not themselves infectious. As Professor Pinching points out in the Observer, standard hygieneregulations already in force are more than adequate to the task of preventing the accidental spread of the HIV virus. Yet events and stories like this continue to proliferate at a galloping pace. Newspapers like the Observer regularly exploit the irrational anxieties on which they are...


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