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A New Foe Battles AIDS--Bleachman

Times Staff Writer

Some superheroes change into costume only in phone booths. Bleachman, scourge of dirty syringes and the AIDS virus, is not proud. Making his first appearance Tuesday in downtown Los Angeles, the caped health crusader did his changing in a parking garage beneath Pershing Square.

Then he appeared--a 7-foot-tall apparition with a head shaped like a bleach bottle and trailed by a swashbuckling red cape. An assistant walked behind, carrying a 4-foot-long hypodermic needle--for demonstration purposes only.

Variety of Responses

A cartoon symbol of San Francisco’s efforts to educate drug abusers about the perils of dirty syringes, Bleachman was brought to Los Angeles by AIDS health workers hoping to use his presence to encourage addicts to clean their needles and persuade the county Board of Supervisors to allow county-funded agencies to help those efforts.

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Downtown reacted the way it normally does to visiting superheroes. Cameramen snapped away furiously. Bystanders applauded. Children waved.

In Pershing Square, where half the population of transients was still sleeping on the grass, the reaction was more muted. Those who were awake seemed mostly confused--except for one wide-eyed park resident in dreadlocks who responded appropriately by stumbling through the grass, yelling: “Hey, Bleachman! Yay!”

For Bleachman and his allies, it was a start. They would like to duplicate San Francisco’s drug education program, which, according to the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, has persuaded as many as 80% of the city’s intravenous drug abuser population to use bleach and water to clean their needles so that they do not spread the disease when they share syringes.

“Bleach kills the AIDS virus,” proclaimed Bleachman, who in normal, everyday life is Les Pappas, a coordinator for the San Francisco AIDS Foundation’s education campaign.

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Held Back by Supervisors

Officials of AIDS Project Los Angeles said efforts to inform drug addicts about how to prevent the spread of AIDS have been hampered by the refusal of a majority of the county supervisors to allow county agencies to provide information and dispense bleach to addicts.

Over the objections of county health officials, four of the five supervisors voted last August to reject plans to hand out bleach kits and condoms to drug addicts. “We’re creating an . . . illusion (of safe drug use),” said Supervisor Mike Antonovich. Only Supervisor Ed Edelman voted for the program.

AIDS workers say that an education program with a well-known public character like San Francisco’s Bleachman could make headway among Los Angeles addicts. Though 5% of Los Angeles’ estimated 125,000 intravenous drug abusers are infected with the AIDS virus (a low figure compared to New York, where half the addict population is reportedly infected with AIDS), health officials fear that the spread of AIDS among addicts would soar without a strong education program.

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‘Captain Condom’ Joins In

“You need something visual so that everyone in the population you’re trying to reach--even those who don’t have a high reading level--will understand your message,” said Bleachman. “We’re competing for attention with Miller, Coors, Bud Light and everyone else. That’s why we have to grab their attention.”

Just grabbing their attention is only the first step. On a brief tour of the downtown business district, Bleachman provoked stares wherever he walked, trailed by health workers handing out pamphlets and a fellow pint-sized superhero in a mask who called himself “Captain Condom.”

But few knew who the strolling superhero was. A messenger on a motor scooter drove onto the sidewalk near Broadway, cutting his engine as he yelled, “Hey, it’s Superman!"--unfazed by the fact that this superhero happened to have a bleach bottle for a head.

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Another bystander groused that Bleachman was too tame for Los Angeles. “He needs to jump up and down and make some noise,” the man said. “Come on! This is Los Angeles, brother.”


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