A small article in The Post Aug. 16 noted Northwest Airlines' policy for AIDS patients: to fly on the airline a patient must have a letter from a physician stating he is well enough to travel. As a public-health practitioner trained in family planning and sexually transmissible disease, I find the policy disturbing. It is clearly based on a less-than-complete understanding of the current scientific knowledge about AIDS transmission. Education of the public about the routes of HIV transmission is the only way to enable decision makers in any capacity to create sound, nondiscriminatory policies.

Equally disturbing, however, was the misguided approach taken by the AIDS patient discussed in the story to alert others to his condition. Wearing a T-shirt that announces affliction with an epidemic, terminal illness seems a very destructive way in which to increase awareness of the AIDS problem. All those involved in that incident will not remember it as the time they learned something about AIDS, but as the time they were terrified by the illness.

The time, money and resources that went into production of the shirt could probably have been better spent on education, counseling or other positive measures to increase awareness. While as a society we have an obligation to help care for and comfort those afflicted with AIDS, those afflicted have an equal obligation to help the general public become more compassionate -- in a nonconfrontational manner.

SUZANNE C. THOMAS

Falls Church