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Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, aided AIDS victims Wednesday by convincing the Senate that barring them from food-service jobs would be reacting to fear, not scientific evidence.

But fellow conservative Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., said that decision could force restaurants into bankruptcy by scaring away customers.The debate came as Helms tried to order Senate conferees working out differences with the House on separate versions of the Americans With Disabilities Act to insist on barring people with AIDS or the HIV virus from working as food handlers.

Instead, Hatch persuaded the Senate to call for the Department of Health and Human Services to prepare a list of diseases that can be spread through food and to allow employers to refuse to hire people with those diseases or to transfer them.

"The list from HHS will be based on the best available science, not someone's best available fears or the best available hysteria," Hatch said.

Helms retorted, "Let's not kid ourselves. AIDS and HIV won't be on that list. That's why this is proposed." Current scientific evidence suggests AIDS is transmitted through blood or sexual contact.Helms argued that restaurant owners who could not fire employees with AIDS or HIV could be ruined by public perception about the disease.

"Call it hysteria or whatever you want," Helms said. "They'll stay away in droves."

Then, simulating a cook cutting lettuce, Helms said, "A chef with AIDS is chopping up a salad, and he cuts his finger. Do you want to eat that salad? I'd like to poll the members of the Senate to see who would."

Hatch said his proposal made more sense because "fear of disease can only be stopped when we all have an understanding of how the disease can be spread and how we can prevent the disease's transmission."

He added, "Education can reduce fear. Understanding can allay concern. Americans are compassionate and generous. But they need the facts."

Helms' motion died 61-39, and Hatch's passed 99-0.

It is not the first time this year that Hatch has come to the rescue of AIDS victims. He teamed with Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., to run a $5 billion AIDS research and treatment bill earlier this year, with Hatch especially fighting for treatment of children and infants with AIDS.

The action Wednesday moved the Americans With Disabilities Act a step closer to final passage. It is designed to guarantee access to jobs and public facilities for 43 million disabled people.