I write this on Easter, a celebration of rebirth. But we in the HIVcommunity are marking a different season, which descended suddenly onFebruary 11 with the “supervirus” public-health emergency. We see onlythe rebirth of fear.
The case, by now, is famous. A gay New Yorkerin his 40s, who had stayed uninfected for almost two decades,seroconverted last fall. In recent years, he’d begun using crystal methand attending the marathon unprotected-sex parties it fuels. Like methitself, his virus is immensely powerful and nearly untreatable, and hisfirst lab numbers were terrifying: 40 T cells and resistance to 19 of20 HIV meds. By February 11, he was reportedly off crystal, ontreatment and helping the health department contact his sex partners.But many, of course, were anonymous. And given the crystal use andunprotected sex among gay New Yorkers, this man’s infection may be onlythe first to be identified. There could have been, by February 11,hundreds more.

On the steps of City Hall that day, the city’shealth commissioner, Thomas Frieden, MD, fed the press a worst-casescenario. Flanked by AIDS service organization honchos, gay pols andother advocates, he said, “It is likely there are others infected withthis strain and this individual has infected others.” To HIVers heexaggerated the risks of reinfection: “You need to protect yourselfagainst being infected with another strain of HIV which could make youvery sick even if you’re doing well now.” Our leaders chimed in withvariations on the “safe-sex wake-up call” theme. The story multipliedand mutated faster than the supervirus itself. A typical tabloidheadline shrieked: AIDS Nightmare Rocks America

Facingthe spectre of a serial-killer supervirus stalking the city, we maysound petty asking whether our officials and advocates acted in goodfaith. After all, a public alarm could finally discipline the entirecrystal-sex subculture: Get clean, get condoms, above all, get tested.And following our leaders’ relentless sermon that AIDS is still adeadly disease, calls to hotlines, visits to testing centers and, nodoubt, donations are up again. Indeed, what most comforts those whogathered at city hall seems to be the unmistakable sign that fear—theraw AIDS dread not seen in more than a decade—is reborn.

Butwhy? Frieden’s nightmare scenario has—thankfully—so far failed tomaterialize. Despite an unprecedented nationwide hunt for matchingstrains, we’ve seen only the one lonely case. The man is faring betterthan expected: His five-drug combo is partially controlling his virus,though his immune system has yet to rebound. (Could the sheer stress ofthe frenzied headlines, doom-and-gloom science and communityhand-wringing, not to mention becoming the right wing’s posterboy forbarebacking druggie burn-in-hell homos, bear some blame for his T-cellcount?) As this “emergency” evolves, the celebrated return to fearlooks increasingly like a trick by authorities and advocates who have,understandably, thrown up their hands at our high rate of drug use andunsafe sex.

Thanks to Frieden, the media has its new patientzero, and the man will have to fight to protect his anonymity and hishealth. But our questions should cut deeper than his mere identity;they should make us question our own. Why does a man in his 40s come tovalue staying uninfected less than losing himself in a drugged-outdesire? As a man in his 40s who has stayed uninfected, I cansympathize. Being negative is nothing to be proud of; being positive isno cause for shame. If we longtime neggies have anything to sing about,it is finding the courage to get over AIDS dread and to take informedrisks for the sake of pleasure. We make mistakes. But we’d rather riskgetting carried away—and infected—one crazy night than live our daysfrozen in fear. That city officials and AIDS leaders would revive ourfears rather than celebrate our courage may be the real emergency here.

Walter Armstrong
Editor in Chief
e-mail: waltera@poz.com