The story of acquired immune deficiency syndrome has been emerging slowly over the past three years, but the nation's attention became sharply focused on the disease in July, when actor Rock Hudson announced that he was suffering from AIDS. He died three months later.
And as the disease slowly spreads to people who are not in the original risk groups -- sexually active gay men, intravenous drug abusers and blood transfusion recipients -- the fears, the societal reactions and the prejudices are likely to intensify.
"The fear and panic waxes and wanes," said Dr. Harold Jaffe, director of Centers for Disease Control's epidemiology section of the AIDS program. "It does not take much to get people upset."
Scientists have developed a blood test that indentifies whether a person has been exposed to the AIDS virus and is a potential AIDS victim or carrier. As a result, blood used for transfusions, clotting factor for hemophiliacs and other blood products are now considered safe.
But the test itself has created controversy and prompted charges that it can be used to violate an individual's civil rights. It has been used, for example, to screen members of the military for exposure to AIDS.
"There are continuing civil rights and ethical issues around the use of the blood test," Jaffe said. "Will insurance companies require the use of the blood test before giving insurance? Will states start requiring that people with postive blood tests be reported by name? We have been approaching it item by item.
"For example, with children in schools, is there a need for testing? We also are dealing with guidelines for various occupations. We are working on guidelines for surgeons and dentists. We also are working on guidelines in prison situations."
Even quarantine of some AIDS victims is being considered. "People are reading The Post and watching TV and saying, 'Oh my God, this is a terrible disease. I don't want to get it, and I want to be protected.' They turn to their public health representatives and politicians and say, 'Do something.' Whether they like it or not, people in public health and in elected offices are starting to look at options that seem extreme but have to be considered."
As officials struggle with the societal aspects of AIDS, scientists will continue to press for a workable treatment for those already infected and a vaccine to prevent the disease.
Although there is no cure for AIDS, researchers at the National Institutes of Health currently are testing several drugs that may be able to kill or control the AIDS virus within the body and prevent additional damage to the immune system.
National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease scientists are testing the ability of bone marrow transplants to restore a patient's damaged immunity once the virus is under control.
National Cancer Institute researchers have developed several potential vaccines against the AIDS virus which are now undergoing tests, though experts generally decline to predict when either the vaccine or a drug for fighting the disease will be available.
And while science and society struggle to come to terms with AIDS, this grim disease will continue to spread. As of Dec. 16, 15,581 people in the United States had developed AIDS; that number is expected to double to some 30,000 next year. Of those with AIDS through 1985, 8,002 died.
Between 500,000 and 1 million Americans have been exposed to the disease, CDC experts have estimated. Between 5 and 20 percent of those people will develop AIDS in the future.