In May 1983, amid the rapidly escalating AIDS crisis, a doctor at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) promoted a stunning theory about the newly encountered disease in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). Noting that the same issue of the journal contained an article documenting one of the first cases of the immunodeficiency disease’s appearance in an infant, the author sounded an alarm about “the possibility that routine close contact, as within a family household, can spread the disease.”
The article took an increasingly speculative turn in promoting this new theory. “If indeed the latter is true, then AIDS takes on an entirely new dimension,” it continued. “If we add to this possibility that nonsexual, non-blood-borne transmission is possible, the scope of the syndrome may be enormous.” Although the article reiterated the need to “be cautious” in accepting these findings as they awaited more evidence, the discovery “should at least alert us to the possibility that we are truly dealing with AIDS in children,” as transmitted through routine interaction.
The author of the article has since attained widespread familiarity. It was Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, a rising star within the NIH bureaucracy.
Press accounts, noticing Fauci’s article, immediately sounded the alarm. “Household contacts can transmit AIDS,” read one nationally syndicated report on the UPI wire dated May 5, 1983. The Associated Press queried the next day “Does AIDS spread by Routine Contact?” and quoted Fauci as their lead authority. The New York Times raised the specter of household transmission between family members, invoking Fauci’s commentary as its main authority.
We now know of course that Fauci’s theory was wrong. HIV, the virus that was later discovered to cause AIDS, only transmits by exposure to infected bodily fluids such as blood, or by sexual contact. The infant infection discussed in the same JAMA issue involved vertical transmission from the mother to child during pregnancy.
The damage was already done though, as the media went to work stoking alarm about AIDS transmission through simple routine contacts. Hundreds of newspapers disseminated the distressing theory from Fauci’s article. Writing a few weeks later, conservative columnist Pat Buchanan enlisted Fauci as the centerpiece of a rebuttal against Health and Human Services Secretary Margaret Heckler,