Four months ago, Dennis Meehan decided to save the world. From AIDS, that is.
Meehan, a retired hydraulic engineer who invented a specialized drip-irrigation system for landscaping, admits it's a lofty goal--one that so far has eluded medical experts worldwide.
Still, the self-described entrepreneur from Wisconsin predicts that he can curb the spread of the deadly disease by at least 65% in the next two years and ultimately save millions of lives.
Meehan's secret? A simple little item he calls the "card of life."
Form of 'Proof'
"These days, if you're in a singles bar or wherever, you've got no way of telling if a person has AIDS or doesn't by looking into their blue eyes," Meehan said. "The card is proof. Evidence. Results. If we can get society accustomed to carrying these cards, then I believe we have a shot at beating this thing."
But County health officials and a spokesman for the San Diego County AIDS Project are dubious of Meehan's plans, fearing it could lull potential victims into a false sense of security.
The card of life is the centerpiece of a private AIDS testing program unveiled in San Diego by Meehan on Wednesday night. Under the program, people who obtain blood tests through Meehan's firm, American Life Systems, will be issued plastic, embossed cards if they test negatively for the AIDS antibody.
The test, which Meehan says will be performed by "state-approved, licensed laboratories under the supervision of medical doctors," will cost $39--including the card. Meehan says that price is one-third the cost of the test at a physician's office and insists that all results will be confidential.
Acquired immune deficiency syndrome is caused by a virus that attacks the body's immune system, leaving its victim vulnerable to a variety of infections and tumors. It is transmitted by sexual contact, contaminated needles and blood, and from an infected mother to her newborn child. The disease is invariably fatal, and there is no known cure.
The Wait for Results
The San Diego County Department of Health Services offers free AIDS testing at locations throughout the area. But it takes as long as three weeks to obtain test results from the county, and, according to Meehan, "Waiting three weeks is murder for someone worried that they might have AIDS."
Moreover, Meehan believes that "a lot of people aren't willing to go down there and sit with drug addicts, screaming kids and people with no shoes on. And when they're through, they don't have anything to show for the test. They can walk around and tell people they've been tested, that they don't have it, but who will believe them?"
That's where the card of life comes in. As Meehan sees it, the card will tell the rest of the world: "We do not have AIDS. We do not want AIDS, and we want our loved ones and friends to say the same."
In a press release announcing the first testing under the program Wednesday night, Meehan says the card will "show others you respect yourself," prove "you are a responsible, concerned individual" and demonstrate "you are a proud participant in the war against AIDS."
Meehan concedes that a one-time test is no guarantee that a person is not infected with AIDS or may not become infected at a future date.
"We advocate retesting, and the card merely says that, at the time you were tested, the antibody did not show up," Meehan said. "But once you've gotten two or three cards--we issue new ones every time you're tested--then you can comfortably tell someone, 'Hey, look. I'm 99% sure I'm perfectly OK.' I think this is the only way--short of abstaining, which you are simply not going to get human beings to do--that makes any sense."
County health officials and others active locally on the AIDS issue reacted skeptically to Meehan's program.
Dr. Georgia Reaser, acting health officer for the county, said she is concerned that people might feel "overly comfortable" with a card indicating a clean bill of health.
"I think there exists with this plan one of the pitfalls that was true for food handlers and TB testing," Reaser said. "You might not have it today, but if you don't get checked for another year, you might get it in the meantime. Whatever piece of paper you have in your hand doesn't mean a thing."
Representatives of the San Diego County AIDS Project, a private, nonprofit group that counsels AIDS victims and provides educational information on the virus, were more critical.
"I think this could be very misleading," said spokesman Lance Clem. "For this thing to be valid, a person would have to go in and be retested every time he or she engaged in sex. And if you're practicing safe sex, why do you need a card?"
Concern Over Confidentiality
Clem also expressed concerns about the confidentiality of a patient's test results: "If a person is issued a card, that indicates (the company is) keeping some kind of records." And he suggested that the card could be construed as "a license for promiscuity."
The latter is a charge that Meehan vehemently denies.
"We by no means intend for these cards to be used in singles clubs or anything like that, and would totally oppose them being used as a license to continue unsafe sex," said Meehan, who is single.
Meehan, 49, says he hopes that the "return of monogamy to our lives" and the rise of "marriage and the family unit" will be among the positive benefits of his card and testing program.
Meehan is not the first to believe that cards declaring that a person has tested negative for AIDS might be useful in the battle against the disease.
Last year, a West Los Angeles company called AIDS Awareness planned to open its doors and offer a picture identification card that said "OK" if the bearer had tested negative. The fee was $100 for a card good for three months. The card's innovators described it as a "certificate of responsibility."
But a furor generated by Los Angeles-area AIDS clinics and politicians prevented the business from testing a single client. Los Angeles Councilman Joel Wachs, for one, called the plan "disgusting and misleading."
Meehan disputed any similarities between his program and other programs that have used the identification card approach.
Goal is Testing
"Our whole goal is to get people tested, to find out who has AIDS and give those who don't some validation," Meehan said. "I think there will come a time when we will only deal with those who have cards."
A San Diego resident for the past 11 years, Meehan said he was moved to come out of retirement and take on the AIDS epidemic several months ago, after he had "given myself to God."
"I was looking for something to do, and he told me to go do this, to save people, no matter what. So here I am."
Meehan, whose private company is being financed by a partner he declined to identify, hopes to "fine-tune" the program in San Diego and expand it throughout the United States and ultimately worldwide.
"People are ready for this," said Meehan, who has been tested twice for AIDS. "The time has come."