This interview originally appeared in the November 22, 1985, issue of the magazine.
U. S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop is the chief public health official in America. In an exclusive interview with Christianity Today, Koop went on record for the first time about Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) a disease he calls "a ticking time bomb." An abridged version of that interview follows:
Are the public's fears about AIDS warranted?
Yes. The public health threat is considerable. Up to now, the number of AIDS cases has been doubling about every year, and 100 percent of those who have had a diagnosis of AIDS for more than three years are dead. It is a disease we can neither cure nor prevent at the present time.
AIDS can be maintained at its approximate level today if people maintain mutually faithful, monogamous sexual relationships. The difficulty is that with the virus having leapt into the heterosexual community, you never know whether a heterosexual partner might be affected. There are reports of a very high incidence of positive virus tests among prostitutes—another source of contamination within communities.
How contagious is the AIDS virus?
AIDS is an infectious disease, but it is not highly contagious. It's very hard to get AIDS, and the best evidence of this is the hundreds of health workers who have worked with AIDS patients. None has ever been proven to contract AIDS except by one of two methods: sexual contact or a needle prick that transmitted the virus.
Should children who have contracted AIDS through blood transfusions attend public schools?
On the basis of everything we know, the likelihood of contagion between an AIDS child and a normal child is infinitesimally small. You have to get the virus from body fluids—like tears, saliva, or semen—into the bloodstream of another person to cause infection. That isn't like to happen, but it would be possible for one child to bite another child. So we can never say "never."
What is your role in addressing the AIDS problem?
The surgeon general is obligated to warn the people of this country about things that are dangerous to their health and to advise them of what they can do to promote good health. If this message is being adequately delivered some other way, my obligation is essentially moot. Some people think there is a sinister reason why I have not made public announcements about AIDS, but there is no sinister reason. One of my superiors decided several years ago that he would be the spokesman who would address the AIDS problem. There is no "real story" that isn't being told. Nothing is being hidden from the public.
Do you view AIDS as a homosexual disease?
No, AIDS is a viral disease that apparently enters the victim through the blood. Several classes of people are most susceptible to it. First, there are those who receive contaminated blood through a transfusion, and we have done our best to eliminate that risk with a screening test. The number of contaminated samples that get through is almost nil.
A second high-risk category includes people who engage in a practice that transfers blood from one person to another—primarily intravenous drug uses who pass about the same needle.
The third group is made up of practicing homosexuals. The disease first came to the public's attention in the promiscuous homosexual community.
Finally, people who receive a blood product prepared from blood that has been contaminated are at risk. However, that problem has been eliminated. The virus is very susceptible to heat, so that low-heat treated blood products are freed of the virus without destroying the efficacy of the product.