HOW diseases are treated as a public issue -- by the media and by public officials -- can very much affect the common weal, as it can the individuals and their families who must confront its claims. Fear is itself a form of contagion, creating conditions that can deprive its victims of the basic rights, privacy, compassion, dignity, and care to which any sufferer should be entitled. There are signs that a better sense of proportion may be beginning to emerge in the case of AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome). But the initial reaction has often been anything but reasoned and humane. There have been instances of eviction, firings, ostracization of children from schools, wholesale screening of applicants in hiring, as an emotional public recoil from reports and often unfounded assumptions about the disease.
The Pentagon's announced plan to test recruits for evidence of the condition, for instance, is criticized as an invasion of privacy that could spread ``panic'' about AIDS, or could be used to target homosexuals, who have made up a large but not exclusive proportion of early AIDS patients.
It is not necessary to dwell on the physical aspects of the disease to be able to discern certain standards of fairness, both to the victims and to the community, that should apply.
The Federal Centers for Disease Control has recommended against blanket discrimination against employees in the workplace with the condition. Similarly in the case of schools, the agency suggests individual decisions on attendance for teachers and other personnel; for children, it suggests a joint decision reached by each youth's parent, school, and medical personnel. The agency's presumption is more on the inclusion than the exclusion of sufferers from the community. The Los Angeles City Council recent ly voted to protect AIDS patients from discrimination in housing, jobs, and health care. Other state and local governments are attempting to approach the AIDS issue in a more informed and caring manner. Private groups are providing shelters and other support. This more reasoned, compassionate approach should replace the fear and reaction that tend to complicate rather than ease the public course of an issue like AIDS.