Frist, do no harm

Topics: War Room,

Bill Scher at LiberalOasis was as appalled as we were watching Doctor-slash-Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist hemming and hawing on ABC’s This Week when asked if HIV could be spread through tears and sweat. The topic came up when George Stephanopoulos asked the good doctor about one of the hot topics in Washington: Federally-funded abstinence programs spreading misinformation to the nation’s youth — and sucking up $170 million in tax dollars to boot. Rep. Henry Waxman’s office revealed in a report last week that some of the sex ed programs, for example, are teaching hormonally and informationally-challenged kids that the effectiveness of condoms in preventing STDs is not supported by hard evidence. Another turned back the clock with this assessment: “Women gauge their happiness and judge their success by their relationships. Men’s happiness and success hinge on their accomplishments.”

But Stephanopolous first asked Frist to weigh in on that peculiar statement taught in one of these federally-funded programs suggesting tears and sweat could transmit HIV. If you were expecting Frist to jump at the chance to set the record straight — to reassure us that in fact, HIV has never been transmitted this way — your standards, sadly, are too high for your public servants.

Scher put the relevant parts of the ABC transcript on LiberalOasis. We’ll excerpt here:

“STEPHANOPOULOS: Now you’re a doctor. Do you believe that tears and sweat can transmit HIV?
FRIST: I don’t know. I can tell you –
STEPHANOPOULOS: You dont know?
FRIST: I can tell you things like, like –
STEPHANOPOULOS: Wait. Let me stop you there. You don’t know that, you believe that tears and sweat might be able to transmit AIDS?
FRIST: Yeah, no, I can tell you that HIV is not very transmissible as an element, like compared to smallpox, compared to the flu, it’s not.
(snip)
STEPHANOPOULOS: …Let me just clear this up though, do you or do you not believe that tears and sweat can transmit HIV?
FRIST: It would be very hard…for tears and sweat to — I mean, you can get virus in tears and sweat. But in terms of the degree of infecting somebody, it would be very hard.”

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What’s sad here is not only that Frist put politics ahead of his own medical knowledge and responsibility as a physician (Scher thinks Frist may have violated medical ethics with his performance), but that Frist was once considered a real advocate for the global AIDS fight on Capitol Hill. Sadly, though, along with refusing to speak honestly about the science of HIV transmission, he’s no longer a reliable backer of putting more U.S. dollars into fighting global AIDS, either. Last month, Congress cut basically $200 million from the U.S. contribution to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria — and Frist didn’t stop it.

Geraldine Sealey is senior news editor at Salon.com.

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