Many newspapers have what amounts to an AIDS page every day. The disease is moving in on all fronts, and there is proposed legislation to discuss on Monday, new experiments in treatment on Tuesday, a discussion of what it really was that someone died from on Wednesday, and on and on. From time to time it pays to collect these data and chart where we are going with them. Here is the current scene.
In the matter of testing, it is increasingly clear that we are moving in the direction of universal testing -- ''universal'' here read with the obvious qualifications. It is nowhere envisioned that Willard Scott will joyfully announce on the ''Today'' show that Mrs. J. J. Jones of Elksville, Ill., is so many years old today and was tested for AIDS. Exactly what ''universal'' means will be an empirical question in part, but an empirical question whose edges are deeply informed by diplomacy and the desire for privacy.
But consider the rapidity of the change in public sentiment. Less than one month ago a bill in the Senate to require testing for immigrants (and for those who seek wedding licenses) was defeated 2 to 1. A couple of days ago the Senate passed a bill requiring testing for immigrants -- unanimously.
President Reagan in his speech last week asked for testing in four categories: the first, immigrants; the second, federal prisoners; the third, patients being treated for drug abuse and sexually transmitted diseases; the fourth, applicants for marriage licenses. We know that the test is compulsory in the armed forces, and we know that public-health agencies came out a year ago in favor of testing of high-risk groups, together with a program to inform sex partners of those who register positive that they may be carriers of the virus.
Meanwhile, in dribs and drabs we are reminded of the dimensions of the problem. Prof. Stephen Jay Gould of Harvard has written about the possibility of the depopulation of the globe -- by 25 percent. Last week there was news of three nurses who acquired the virus by exposure to diseased blood. And -- to volunteer a scarcely believable prediction, but one given me by a non-volatile student of the problem -- it may prove difficult five years from now to engage medical attention for those who suffer from AIDS. Her point (she is on the board of a hospital in Providence, R.I.) is that mysteries of communicability are increasing rather than decreasing, and that the social indices therefore point in the direction of quarantine.
Meanwhile, we get some specific data. The cost of testing is about $50 per test. If a test registers positive, a second is administered. There is a very remote possibility that the second test will go negative -- the first was a false alarm. But if the second test is positive, a third is generally administered. And the indications at the moment are that there is zero chance that the third test will be negative if the first two are positive.
Using rough figures, the cost of testing 250 million people would be $12.5 billion. But we are nowhere near developing the facilities for testing on so wide a scale. In San Francisco and Los Angeles and certain other cities there is a three-month wait for a test. If everyone were tomorrow to resolve that tests should be administered to everyone between the ages of 12 and 60, it would take months and months before it was possible to proceed, and more than the $12.5 billion to mobilize medical resources to do the job.
But the question is less and less ''Should we test?'' than it is, ''What do we do having tested?'' For instance, if we proceed to demand of potential immigrants not only that they test for five venereal diseases, infectious leprosy and active tuberculosis (the present U.S. requirements) but also for AIDS, what do we do with Pierre Lafite in Marseilles who registers positive? Well, we tell him sorry, he can't come live in the United States. But do we then tell Mrs. Lafite what we have discovered about her husband? Do we tell the French government? The quick answer is hell no, we've taken care of our own interest, and the privacy priority should now assert itself. But is this the way to treat the French -- to disguise from the French community the knowledge that we have identified a carrier who may be transmitting the disease to other Frenchmen?
We do not know the figures, and they are hard to come by, for obvious reasons. But for every 10 who want to test for AIDS to ascertain whether they have it, there are two? five? 10? 20? who don't want to test on the grounds that a positive result would ruin them psychologically. This would change if early discovery led to treatment that might cure, as early discovery of cancer increases the chances of survival.
It is as rough a problem as a democracy has ever faced. Stay tuned, and read the AIDS page every day.