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Visit Canceled After Costa Rica Demanded Guarantee Crew Was AIDS- Free

September 10, 1987

WASHINGTON (AP) _ A demand by Costa Rica that the Navy certify that the crew was free of AIDS forced the service to cancel a visit to the Central American country by the destroyer USS Luce last week, Pentagon sources said Thursday.

″There is a fear and paranoia growing about this disease that could threaten our relationshis with friendly countries around the world,″ said one official, who like others spoke on condition of anonymity.

″This could be much worse than the anti-nuclear problem. The issue is going to have to be resolved at the highest levels of government and very quickly at that. If we don’t nip this in the bud, this could prove a very dangerous precedent.″

The reference to anti-nuclear policies involves a decision by the United States to sever its military relationship with New Zealand after that country refused in 1985 to allow Navy ships to visit without certification they did not carry any nuclear weapons.

In San Jose, Costa Rica, Mark Krischik, spokesman for the U.S. Embassy, contended that the incident involving the Luce had nothing to with a Costa Rican government decree signed in July that requires visiting sailors to show proof they had passed an AIDS screening test before being permitted ashore

Krischik said there has been tentative plans for a goodwill visit by the ship this week, but that before final arrangements were made, the United States realized that the correct type of fuel for the ship was not available at the Caribbean port of Limon and therefore the stop was postponed.

But the Pentagon sources immediately dismissed that contention, with one official describing it as ″an interesting cover story.″

Costa Rica was not the first country to challenge the visit of a Navy ship because of a fear of AIDS, the sources said. They said the Philippines as well as other, unidentified nations had moved in that direction at different points.

″In the other instances, however, we easily resolved the matter and the visits were made,″ said one official. ″This time, we couldn’t resolve it.″

According to the sources, the Costa Rican government demanded the Navy provide a roster of crewmen on the Luce and ″certification″ that every sailor was free of AIDS, a deadly ailment that destroys the body’s immunity to disease.

The Navy tried to explain its testing procedures for AIDS to the Costa Ricans, but to no avail, said one official.

″We weren’t going to hand over the ship’s roster and you can’t make that kind of certification in any event,″ the source added.

″The issue here is to try to get our friends to understand our position and not be panicked into requesting a lot of things that we can’t provide them,″ said another official.

In mid-August, three crew members of the U.S.-registered merchant ship Fredrique, docked at the Pacific port in Quepos, were prohibited from coming ashore after one of them tested positive for AIDS-related antibodies.

One source said some top Navy and Defense Department officials were convinced the Costa Rican demands were prompted in part by a long-running ″disinformation″ campaign mounted by the Soviet Union.

The Defense and State departments have spent more than a year trying to counter that propaganda effort, which is aimed at perpetuating claims the AIDS virus was originally produced in an Army laboratory

The challenge by Costa Rica comes at a time when the Pentagon is conducting the largest, most extensive AIDS screening program in the world.

AIDS - acquired immune deficiency syndrome - can be spread through sexual contact, the transfusion of tainted blood and the sharing of needles by drug abusers. No cure has been found.

The Pentagon, determined to protect military blood supplies, now routinely tests every potential military enlistee as well as all 2.1 million men and women now on active duty.

Recruits who test positively are denied admission to the military. Those on active duty who test positively for exposure are allowed to remain in the military unless they show signs of the disease itself. But they are restricted to duty inside the United States and thus in the case of the Navy, not allowed to go to sea.

The problem confronting the Navy, however, is that a person can be exposed to the disease and not test positively for several months.

″The test is not foolproof from a timing standpoint,″ one official noted. ″You could have a sailor begin a six-month deployment after testing negatively, but he’s already been exposed. Or he could make a port call during the cruise and be exposed. You can’t guarantee at every point that he doesn’t carry the disease.″

The sources said the Luce, which carries a crew of between 375 and 400, had been operating in the Caribbean Sea on a routine training mission when it attempted to visit the Costa Rican port of Limon for three or four days.

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