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Boxer’s HIV Test Heats Up Debate Over Risk to Others

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The confirmation Monday that boxer Tommy Morrison had tested positive in Nevada for HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, has given new ammunition to those questioning the lack of similar testing requirements in California. But the question of how much of a risk boxers and those around them take by engaging in their sport in this age of AIDS remains unanswered.

Michael Mellman, the Lakers basketball team physician and the man who has treated Magic Johnson since he was found to be HIV-positive in 1991, says the risk in boxing is difficult to isolate.

“I’ve been uncomfortable when people talk about the relative differences in risk from one sport to the other,” Mellman said. “For those of us who work in the health care arena, the chances of transmission through splashes of blood, a knife or a needle are more likely than in sports and you still don’t see a lot of cases, although it’s not zero.

“The amount of infective viral particles in the blood and the amount of blood someone is exposed to determines the risk. If the chances of [contracting HIV] are one in a billion in basketball and you’ve got 10 times the risk in boxing, that would be 10 in one billion. That’s still small. But I don’t know what the numbers are. No one knows. We’re all just guessing.

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“We can say there is a greater risk of infection from people who are very sick. But when you try to translate that into sports, I see problems. Athletes functioning at a high level are not very ill. It’s hard to imagine an athlete who has AIDS playing basketball or boxing. That doesn’t make sense.”

Medical researchers last summer calculated that the chances of dying from an HIV virus contracted in a professional football game were less than the chances of dying in a plane crash while flying to watch the game, said Jeffrey Laurence, director of the AIDS laboratory at New York Hospital.

“The chances of getting the virus in a contact sport like boxing where you are almost guaranteed that blood will be splattered,” said Laurence, a renowned AIDS specialist, “is still remote but less remote.

“Lancet, a British medical journal, has published two or three anecdotes where people contracted the HIV virus after engaging in street fights. But it is difficult to research anecdotes because you don’t know the whole scenario.

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“My own personal opinion is that there is much greater reason to test in boxing than in other sports. It’s the only sport where there may be significant bleeding by both sides. That’s not usually the case in basketball and football. In those sports, you can stop play and treat the wound. In boxing, the wounds can happen dramatically and quickly. But the risk is still very, very small.”

Still, it’s a risk that Bill Eastman, chairman of the California Athletic Commission, does not think should be taken. Morrison had been scheduled to fight Saturday night in Las Vegas, but when his HIV test was positive, he was suspended by the Nevada State Athletic Commission, which had administered the test. That would not have been the case in California, which does not require fighters to take an HIV test.

“Every time it comes up,” Eastman said, “the politicians scatter like cockroaches under a light. They are afraid of not being politically correct. I’ve been trying to get legislation passed for this test for three years. We have actively sought an author for such a bill, but we haven’t been able to find one.

“It’s a shame and I feel bad for Tommy Morrison, but people need to wake up. We need to find a legislator who is not afraid of the tarring that comes with this subject, someone who is not afraid of being branded a homophobic or is not ignorant about AIDS.”

Once the results of Morrison’s tests were known, he was suspended worldwide.

It is only that suspension which allows the California commission to keep Morrison from fighting in this state, Eastman said. If the California commission had received the information on Morrison on its own, Eastman said, it could not legally have stopped Morrison from fighting here.

Only four states--Nevada, Oregon, Washington and Arizona--test fighters for HIV.

Nevada has been testing for HIV since 1988. Over that period, Marc Ratner, executive director of the state’s athletic commission, estimates that 2,100 boxers have been tested. Morrison was only the second to test positive.

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Robert Karns, chairman of the physicians’ advisory committee of the California athletic commission, thinks the chances of contracting HIV in the ring are remote.

“In the history of the world, since the first cases were reported in 1979, there has never been a single case proven to have been transmitted in an athletic event,” he said. “Zero.”

There are at least six boxers who have tested HIV-positive. At least one of them, Paul Banke, is known to have fought in California while HIV-positive, according to Karns and Don Muse, a Washington referee and promoter.

“We know Paul Banke bled all over people,” Karns said. “He never gave it to anyone. Might it happen? Sure, it’s possible, but extremely remote.”

Karns did not even think Monday’s confirmation would discourage some fighters from getting into the ring against Morrison.

“Could I get a boxer to fight Morrison for 400 bucks at the Forum? Probably not,” Karns said. “But if I pay him 50 grand, I’ll find you 15 [fighters].”

Karns said it would not bother him to sit in the front row if he knew one of the fighters in the ring was HIV-positive.

“I wouldn’t move back to the 10th row,” he said. “I’d stay in Row 1, and I’d wipe the blood off his face.”

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But despite such assurances, boxers remain concerned. Morrison’s last opponent, Lennox Lewis, plans to be tested, said his manager, Frank Maloney. Lewis and Morrison fought in October.

“But even if those results are positive, can you say it was due to the fight?” Mellman asked. “We tell basketball players that the risk off the court is greater than the risk on the court, by far. Their behavior off the court is far more important. To try and determine the cause, you would have to go through the fighter’s entire life history. Could he have gotten it through a transfusion or the use of needles? How many sexual partners has he had? What style of sex does he engage in? What the tests can tell is if he has tested positive. It doesn’t tell us how he contracted it.”

Cost is not a factor in preventing legislation on HIV testing from passing in California. An HIV test in Nevada costs about $25, and that fee is usually passed on to the boxer. Sometimes, the promoter will pay it.

But even the Nevada law has its problems. A boxer is only required to take an HIV test the first time in a calendar year he fights in the state. If Morrison had had a negative result this time, he could have boxed for the next 10 1/2 months in Nevada without being required to take another HIV test. It can take four to nine months after the disease is contracted for the results to show up in a test.

Ratner says he may push for legislation requiring fighters to be tested every six months in Nevada.

Would that satisfy Eastman in California?

“I would take anything,” he said. “Anything would be better than nothing.”

Bob Arum, the promoter who, along with rival promoter Don King, controls most of the world’s major fighters, is another pushing for legislation.

“What happened with Tommy Morrison is a real tragedy,” Arum said. “But it would have been a worse tragedy if he had not been tested.”


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