Doctors at the federal Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta and public health officials in most cities have reached the point of anguish over the extent to which the dread disease AIDS is striking down blacks, Hispanics, the poor. They see that while blacks and Hispanics make up only 17 percent of the U.S. population, they account for 38 percent of AIDS victims.
So the cry goes up for the federal government and others to target more money and human resources at poor, minority communities in the hope of stopping the spread of this killer disease. But the money seems always to wind up in the hands of people whose priority is to look out for citizens other than those who are most vulnerable, those in the most misery.
The worst diseases known to this society -- tuberculosis, diphtheria and, yes, drug addiction and unwanted pregnancies -- have all carried a special curse for the poor and the uneducated.
Tuberculosis once was a general horror. A 1965 ''Health Guide'' put out by the American Medical Association says that as a safeguard against TB, ''everyone in the household should cultivate good general health habits -- proper food, sufficient rest and recreation, and a well-ventilated home.'' That was advice that few ghetto families could heed, which is why tuberculosis is still a secret curse of minority Americans.
Dr. Alan Bloch of the CDC tells me that in 1953, the first year racial statistics were kept on TB, 23 percent of TB cases were nonwhite. By 1985, blacks and Hispanics accounted for 62 percent of tuberculosis cases.
''Tuberculosis is becoming more and more a black disease, striking down black males in their prime,'' Bloch says. A black male aged 25 to 44 is 16 times more likely to die of TB than a white male in the same age group.
The correlation between vulnerability to AIDS and susceptibility to TB is illustrated dramatically in New York City statistics showing that, of the people with both AIDS and TB, 53 percent are black and 29 percent are Hispanic. And that's a double-barreled blow at minority communities.
No matter what the communicable disease, you can be sure that its swath of destruction runs most rampant through the neighborhoods of the poor, the poorly educated. So diseases that most well-off Americans never think about still take a cruel toll among those imprisoned in terrible housing, victimized by bad schooling, deprived of decent medical care.
There are as yet no vaccines, no antibiotics, that will prevent or cure AIDS, which in four years is likely to strike 270,000 Americans. By that time, AIDS will have stretched its deadly grasp far outside the precincts of the black, the brown, the impoverished. Like the curse of cocaine, PCP and other drugs, it will cast its pall over the centers of wealth, the suburbs and even rural America.
Privileged Americans would be wise to spend a lot of money on research, on the care of today's AIDS victims, in the prayerful hope that neither we nor our children will fall victim to this terrible affliction because we were dumb enough to regard it as a respecter of some race or class.