Those who prove positive with repeated testing will be barred from military service and referred to their private physicians for a more thorough evaluation, said Dr. William Mayer, assistant secretary of defense for health affairs.
"This was a simple, prudent, conservative medical step to take," he said at a Pentagon press conference. "Our responsibility is both to the youngster coming into the service for the first time as well as to the other soldiers with whom he will be associated."
Noting that the deadly disease can be transmitted through blood transfusions, Mayer said: "In times of war, or even in times of smaller mass casualties than war, we rely on direct transfusions from one soldier to another in the field," and contaminated blood "could endanger the lives of wounded soldiers."
Mayer said the decision to test recruits was not an attempt to identify homosexuals, who constitute the largest known AIDS risk group in the nation. Homosexuals are prohibited from serving in any branch of the armed forces.
"Our decision to do this, and all our decisions with respect to the disease of AIDS, have nothing whatever to do with homosexuality," Mayer said. "We are not looking for homosexuals. We are not doing this test to single anyone out, except those who have a disease or potentially have a disease that could hurt them or hurt other people."
Homosexual-rights groups, however, reacted angrily to the Pentagon announcement.
Jeff Levi, political director of the National Gay Task Force, said that the new policy "leaves people vulnerable to this test being misused. It legitimizes the test as a pre-employment screen."
"This is AIDS hysteria," said Nancy Langer, public information director for Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, the country's largest and oldest homosexual legal institution. "The use of this particular test is to screen blood, not to screen people. We have grave reservations about where this policy is going to lead.
"While it might be appropriate to screen those going into battle to assure greater safety in the battlefield, this does not require screening of all personnel," Langer said.
AIDS, or acquired immune deficiency syndrome, is a fatal disease that destroys the body's immune system, leaving it vulnerable to otherwise rare infections. Of a total of 12,736 reported cases and 6,376 deaths, most have been male homosexuals and bisexuals, intravenous drug users and their steady sexual partners. The disease is transmitted through sexual contact, primarily through the exchange of body fluids, or through blood transfusions.
Detects Past Exposure
The cause of AIDS has been identified as a virus known as HTLV-III. In April, the nation's blood banks began using the new blood-screening test to identify potentially infectious donated blood. The procedure detects antibodies to the HTLV-III virus, meaning that an individual who tests positive has been exposed to the AIDS virus. It does not necessarily mean that the individual has AIDS or will contract the disease.
Mayer said that despite statements to the contrary from the federal Centers for Disease Control, he was not confident that the disease could not be spread through casual contact.
"If it (the virus) is in saliva, there always exists the possibility of droplets spreading. . . . If he's in an enclosed space like a tank or an airplane or a personnel carrier, or even a small tent, I'm not confident at all that he can't spread the disease that way."
Mayer said the Armed Forces Epidemiological Board, a group of independent civilian scientists that advises the military on public health policies, is evaluating all known data on AIDS and is expected to meet later this month to discuss the use of the test and the question of whether it should be used on current military personnel.
Precaution Could Be Dropped
Also, Mayer added, "if they tell us it's not needed (on new recruits), I'll stop it."
Mayer estimated that it would cost about $1 million to test about 300,000 new persons each year, and several hundred thousand dollars more for confirmatory tests.
Mayer said that thus far, there have been about 100 confirmed cases of AIDS in the military.