The rumors, fed by his wan and wasted appearance, had circulated for days. Rock Hudson, it was said, was suffering from liver cancer and slipping in and out of a coma at the American Hospital in the Paris suburb of Neuilly. Reality was more shocking than rumor. At the hospital last week, a spokeswoman for the actor bluntly announced, "Mr. Rock Hudson has acquired immune deficiency syndrome."
For most Americans, whose lives have not been touched by the epidemic, the announcement brought home for the first time the grim reality that AIDS is spreading unabated, inevitably striking the famous and the familiar. As of July 22, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta had recorded 11,871 U.S. cases, including 5,917 deaths. Most alarming, the total number of cases continues to double every ten months. So far, 73% of those stricken by the disease have been homosexual or bisexual men, 17% intravenous drug users and 1% hemophiliacs. But the rest of the victims are people from all walks of life, contaminated perhaps through blood transfusions or through sexual contact with infected prostitutes, addicts and others. "This is not really a disease of homosexuality at all," says Dr. Alexandra Levine of the University of Southern California. "It is spread by sexual contact of any kind--homosexual or heterosexual. This is a disease of all of us."
Not everyone exposed to the AIDS virus has contracted the disease. Some have developed a flu-like condition known as ARC (AIDS-related complex), which may or may not progress to the more lethal syndrome. Others have so far displayed no symptoms at all but remain capable of spreading the contagion.
For anyone stricken with a full-blown case of AIDS, the prospects are grim. The virus directly attacks a group of white blood cells called helper T cells, which serve as one of the main coordinators of the immune system. As the disease progresses, these defensive cells are almost entirely destroyed. The immune system collapses, and victims fall prey to one infection after another. Ordinarily mild diseases become dangerous, even fatal, and many patients develop rare cancers, severe neurological disorders and brain damage.
Treatment for AIDS patients is for the most part a matter of damage control. Doctors use antibiotics and other drugs to battle against each successive infection, but overall the war is slowly lost as each illness takes its toll and the immune system continues to deteriorate. "We know of no patient who has regained the total strength of his depleted immune system," says Charles Fallis of the CDC. "We've observed that AIDS is almost always fatal."