Actor Rock Hudson's battle with AIDS has raised public awareness in a way that educational campaigns and public health warnings have been unable to do since the deadly disease was first identified almost five years ago.
The news of Hudson's illness, which was diagnosed a year ago, was made public only Thursday after he checked into a Paris hospital for treatment.
But in those two days, AIDS crisis hot lines across the country and abroad have been flooded with hundreds of calls from people wanting to know how to prevent it, where to go for help, and some offering to donate money for research.
Many likened the impact to the revelations of President Reagan's bout with cancer and former First Lady Betty Ford's acknowledged struggle against alcoholism. However, most said Hudson's announcement was more significant because there has been an even greater stigma associated with AIDS, a usually fatal disease for which there is no known cure or vaccine.
Acquired immune deficiency syndrome, which breaks down the body's immune system, has so far affected mainly homosexuals, Haitians, drug abusers and those who received tainted blood transfusions. Health officials have warned that the often sexually transmitted disease has the potential to spread to all segments of society.
Hudson, the dashing romantic lead in such movies as "Giant" and "Pillow Talk," underwent heart-bypass surgery four years ago. In recent months, he has looked gaunt, pale and ill and was admitted Sunday to the American Hospital in a Paris suburb after collapsing at the Ritz Hotel. A hospital spokeswoman told reporters in Paris on Friday that "he is talking and laughing," gaining strength and eating solid foods.
'He Has Done the Maximum'
The actor's French publicist, Yanou Collart, however, said Friday that the actor is not going to lead a personal campaign against the illness. "He has done the maximum by announcing he has AIDS," she said. She said it is not known how Hudson got the disease.
"Even though this disease has taken many, many lives, until Hudson acquired it, it did not dawn on many people that there is a very devastating and very human side to it," said Ron Najman, spokesman for the National Gay Task Force in New York City. "Although his illness is tragic, it may help cut through the bigotry, bureaucracy and budget problems we have had in dealing with this disease."
Hugh Rice, executive director of the Gay and Lesbian Community Services Center in Los Angeles, said calls to his clinic, which usually run about 30 a day, have increased to 150 a day.
"It's not just the gay community which is calling," Rice said. "Many are heterosexuals who are concerned. And we've had a large number of prostitutes calling to ask questions."
The Gay Men's Health Crisis Center in New York City, which usually gets 200 calls a day, received 700 calls Thursday and Friday, a spokesman said.
The Rev. Malcolm Boyd, a member of the Los Angeles City/County AIDS Task Force that is monitoring the local AIDS crisis for government officials, said the group has concluded that since there is no cure for the disease, preventive education is vital.
'No Concerted Effort'
"Although public health officials have repeatedly warned that AIDS is a No. 1 health problem, there has been no large concerted national effort to provide education and research programs to combat it," Boyd said.
Boyd, an acknowledged homosexual, noted that many in the gay community also have ignored the problem, believing that publicity about the disease would only increase fear of and discrimination against the gay population.
"What has happened to Rock Hudson, while personally tragic, can have a public positive value," Boyd said. "I believe others with the disease who are as highly admired as Hudson will also step forward."
Of the 12,000 people who have contracted AIDS and the nearly 6,000 fatalities in the United States, the vast majority have been homosexuals. In response to a question, Dale Olson, a Hollywood spokesman for the actor, said Friday that he could not comment on Hudson's sexual preferences: "I've never had any discussion with him about that. I don't know anything about that."
Olson said he had no new information about Hudson's medical condition. He said doctors in Paris had told him that Hudson will undergo additional tests this weekend.
Toughest, Biggest Story
Hudson's illness first was disclosed Tuesday in Daily Variety, the show-business trade paper, by a longtime friend of the actor--veteran columnist Army Archerd. Archerd called the story the toughest and biggest one he's written in his 40-year career in Hollywood.
He said Friday that he first heard rumors of Hudson's illness in April, "but I wasn't able to get medical confirmation of it until Monday." He said he hopes that his story will help the fight against AIDs by increasing public awareness of the disease.
In trying to help the AIDS education campaign but at the same time respect Hudson's dignity, "I wanted to be sure to print it (the story) as painlessly, yet as effectively, as possible so that the message would come across," Archerd said.
He said that message, at the end of his short report on Hudson, was: "Doctors warn that the dread disease (AIDS) is going to reach catastrophic proportions in all communities if a cure is not soon found."