Dear Straight Dope:
I was writing to inquire about a rumor that has been going around about an AIDS epidemic particularly in Los Angeles County. The rumor goes as follows. Someone is either at a night club or at a movie theatre when suddenly they feel a pinch on their arm. Not thinking anything of it, they continue on with whatever activity they're doing. Sometime later, they find a note attached to their bodies that say "Welcome to the world of AIDS." Supposedly the people get AIDS checks and they are indeed infected with the world's most deadly virus. Can you please confirm or deny the rumor for me? I think it is something that we all need to know the truth about - whether or not there are people in the world who would be inhumane enough to perform such an act.
SDStaff Jillgat replies:
Oh man, I hate it when that happens.
This story recurs all over the country, and particularly in whatever county the person telling the story lives in. A related story is the one where a guy picks up a babe in a bar and takes her to his place for the night. In the morning she’s gone and written on his bathroom mirror in lipstick is, “Welcome to the World of AIDS.” It’s always this polite, cheerful “Welcome” message, too.
AIDS is a disease that is tailor-made for paranoids. For one thing, it is associated in people’s minds with illicit behaviors that they feel guilty about (and may feel deep down that they deserve to be punished for). It’s perfect, too, because one can have the virus for so long without symptoms, so one never really knows who could be infected. It’s this century’s boogie-man disease, so all kinds of urban legends have sprung up about it, including the “welcome” stories.
I have another personal theory about the real underlying purpose of stories about strangers with AIDS needles. We like these stories because they free us from having to take personal responsibility for protecting ourselves. Why make difficult behavior-change decisions like always using condoms and negotiating safe sex with our partners when there are all these needle-wielding weirdos running around? It doesn’t matter what you do! You’re going to get infected anyway!
Well, don’t panic. There are no proven instances of intentional infection with HIV or AIDS due to chance encounters in public places. There was a case involving a Florida dentist with HIV who appears to have infected several patients, evidently with the intention of publicizing the AIDS crisis, but it was not proven that he did this on purpose. On the other hand, I have interviewed people who knew they had HIV and had unprotected sex without telling their partners. As for taunting lovers that you have infected them with HIV, there are some legends surrounding Gaeten Dugas, the Canadian flight attendant who was an HIV vector in the early 1980s. But these legends are probably exaggerated. While Dugas may have taunted people in anger on occasion, for the most part he was in denial about his illness.
Getting HIV is not that easy. Although the odds vary greatly depending on the type of sexual activity, presence of sores, the strain of HIV, etc., one rule of thumb is that your chances of getting HIV as a result of one act of unprotected sex with an HIV-positive person are probably about 1 in 500. HIV is still less common among non-injection-drug-using heterosexuals in most parts of the United States, so the notion of a guy being intentionally infected as a result of one encounter with a woman are pretty much a paranoid fantasy.
As I said, some people want to believe they’re going to acquire HIV some oddball way, no matter what they do. That’s why, in my opinion, after patiently explaining to an audience how one can and cannot be infected with HIV, I will often get the following kind of question (I’m not making this up): “If the neighbors downstairs at my apartment complex were making too much noise, and I threw slices of bread down onto their balcony to get them to be quiet, and they threw the bread back up onto my balcony, and they had AIDS, and we ate the bread, could we catch it from them?” (All those years I made sexual compromises, and now I get AIDS from eating a peanutbutter and jelly sandwich.)
Send questions to Cecil via email@example.com.
STAFF REPORTS ARE WRITTEN BY THE STRAIGHT DOPE SCIENCE ADVISORY BOARD, CECIL'S ONLINE AUXILIARY. THOUGH THE SDSAB DOES ITS BEST, THESE COLUMNS ARE EDITED BY ED ZOTTI, NOT CECIL, SO ACCURACYWISE YOU'D BETTER KEEP YOUR FINGERS CROSSED.