An international conference of health ministers has agreed that AIDS can be prevented ``through informed and responsible behavior,'' and has pledged to devise national programs to fight the disease. At the conclusion of a three-day meeting, unprecedented in its focus on a single health problem, officials from 148 countries adopted a declaration endorsing the World Health Organization's (WHO) global strategy for the prevention of acquired immune deficiency syndrome. They also agreed to avoid discrimination against AIDS patients.
The most important result of the meeting, according to Halfdon Mahler, director general of WHO, was that it committed health ministers to the concept that ``information does make a difference in health.''
The declaration contained general principles and a strong commitment to coordinate international efforts against AIDS, but offered few specifics. There was no attempt to reach consensus on controversial policies such as compulsory national testing for AIDS which some countries have already adopted. Nor did it address the issue of requiring foreign residents to prove they are free of the disease, a policy adopted by the Soviet Union, China, and Belgium. Nor was there guidance for countries with large international tourism, seen as vulnerable to the spread of the infection.
But the director of WHO's special AIDS program, Jonathan Mann, said AIDS patients ``should feel some sense of encouragement from the strong commitment shown at the meeting'' to combat the problem.
WHO is helping other countries with their national programs and has increased this year's budget for its AIDS prevention efforts to $66 million in 1987. Mann said that three-fourths of the funds go to support national programs, mainly in the third world.
He said Africa is an area of priority because of the high per capita incidence of the disease on the continent and the lack of resources there for public health. But Asian countries also are receiving priority help because the disease is now relatively rare there and, Mann said, ``We want to keep it that way.''
Remarks by delegates at the conference revealed a variety of approaches and attitudes toward AIDS. West European countries have adopted sometimes explicit public information campaigns generally with the theme of ``safe sex.'' Denmark was cited as having the most daring advertisements for condoms.
A more discrete public information campaign is being waged in Britain. It includes television advertisements promoting the use of condoms among young people.
Countries that don't have a serious AIDS problem have been reluctant to undertake such preventive measures. Many Asian countries, as well as the Soviet Union, regard the problem as ``foreign,'' especially since most of their AIDS cases have been among foreigners.
The Soviet minister of health, E.I. Chazov, said Soviet citizens resist the disease because of their genetic superiority and stronger moral fiber. He said AIDS was a disease of decadence. The Soviet Union has deported some 221 foreigners who tested positive for AIDS.
In the United States, the Center for Disease Control plans a national direct mail campaign at mid-year to warn Americans about the AIDS threat, according to Robert Windom, assistant secretary for health in the US Department of Health and Human Services. The brochure will probably address risk behavior, sexual transmission, drug transmission, and the importance of abstinence before marriage and faithfulness after marriage. For those unwilling to follow this advice, it will counsel the use of condoms.
According to wire reports, health officials in the US say they are now treating the first patient diagnosed in the US who has developed AIDS from a second kind of virus. The woman with this more virulent virus is a native of the West African nation of Cape Verde.
US Surgeon General C. Everett Koop said this week that the rate of heterosexuals contracting the disease in the US will increase but that an explosion of AIDS among heterosexuals would probably not occur. Some four percent of AIDS cases in the US are now among heterosexuals.