SACRAMENTO -- Working through a group called PANIC, supporters of political extremist Lyndon LaRouche are seeking passage of a controversial initiative that would restrict the activities of AIDS victims and carriers.
The Prevent AIDS Now Initiative Committee is unabashed about capitalizing on public fear about acquired immune deficiency syndrome to win passage of the Nov. 4 ballot measure called Proposition 64.
'We think given the inaction -- the dangerous inaction -- of elected officials and health officials that a certain kind of panic is appropriate,' said Brian Lantz, a proposition co-sponsor who lost a Senate bid in the June primary.
State election officers say the measure received about 500,000 valid voter signatures, well above the 394,000 needed to qualify for the November ballot.
The initiative's opponents, who include medical experts and several local governments, complain PANIC is whipping up hysteria. They stress AIDS is known to spread through sexual contact or the exchange of blood, not casual contact.
'It is an irrational fear on the part of people who do not understand the modes of transmission for AIDS,' said Dr. Gladden Elliot, president of the California Medical Association.
'It is safe to touch doorknobs and toilet seats. There was the same kind of fear and panic engendered by the polio virus of the 1940s and 1950s,' he said. 'Those fears and panic were quickly suppressed once a real vaccine was on the scene.'
At the heart of debate is the effect of the five-paragraph initiative, which declares AIDS an 'infectious, contagious and communicable disease.'
The initiative adds AIDS to a list of 58 diseases -- including syphillis, gonorrhea, measles, mumps, smallpox and tuberculosis -- that California's public health officers are required to monitor closely.
The measure also would require doctors to report AIDS cases to the state and would allow AIDS victims to be barred from working in schools or from holding jobs that involve food handling.
'There is no provision (in the initiative) for isolation,' Lantz said. 'The only exception to that would be ... an infectious carrier who engaged in willful activity that was assessed by health authorities to be spreading the disease. It does not mandate mass testing, mandate quarantining.'
But Elliott warned that the initiative could require public health officers to impose quarantines 'not only for AIDS victims but antibody-positive people' -- people who may have been exposed to the AIDS virus.
He said medical tests for the AIDS antibody have yet to be totally accurate, leading to false results for some people.
'The fear of isolation will probably make people reluctant to be tested,' Elliott said.
Since 1981, AIDS has afflicted 17,000 nationwide with 250 new cases diagnosed each week. More than 8,800 victims have died.
The American Civil Liberties Union and other opponents contend the authority to isolate AIDS victims now available to public health officers is adequate. They noteAIDS cases already are reported to the state.
'The ACLU interest (in fighting the initiative) is confidentiality of medical records (and) protection of civil liberties such as the right to travel,' said Doug Warner, an attorney and chairman of the ACLU's Gay Rights Committee in San Francisco.
'The initiative says that people who have AIDS, who are carriers, and in some cases who live with people with AIDS or are carriers, cannot work in food handler jobs and cannot go to school.'
Homosexual groups hope to raise $3 million to defeat the measure, which is viewed as the biggest threat to their civil liberties since an unsuccessful 1978 initiative seeking to ban gays from teaching in public schools.
Los Angeles City Councilman Joel Wachs, an advocate of anti-discrimination protections for homosexuals, said the initiative 'almost gives a license to go out and discriminate. It would be a tremendous deprivation of people's rights.'
Like other critics, he noted that LaRouche's theories on AIDS suggest the disease is being spread as part of a Soviet conspiracy and that elected officials supported by homosexuals are attempting to cover up the epidemic.
'It's just dangerous to set public health policy by extreme politicians,' Wachs said. 'It should be determined by experts in the field, public health administrators, medical personnel, and not people like Lyndon LaRouche.'