From an article by June E. Osborn, M.D., in The New England Journal of Medicine (Feb. 18):

AIDS is the most difficult terrain possible for politicians, for the wisdom of present policies often will not be validated for five or more years, and some of the necessary language of prevention is awkward to use in oratory. But reluctance to embark on difficult programs is predicated on the assumption that the situation is temporary, that it will go away. It won't, of course, and a savvy politician is wise to surmount the short-term impediments to sound policy, for the future will bear out the wisdom of frank and sensible approaches.

The stakes are very high. Policies dominated by overreaction threaten to build walls around sick people and victimize them, and even the most robust democracy may not be strong enough to withstand such divisive forces. But knowledge brings with it the power to escape from the crippling stance of past generations, who were condemned to cower in ignorance before the Black Plague or the invisible menace of yellow fever.

The challenge is not merely to learn from history, but especially to cull the pertinent messages from those that are archaic or irrelevant. Those historic lessons include sobering glimpses of the social price of fear, and they must be collated with the facts of the new pandemic, so that understanding based on biomedical achievement can minimize the social cost. There could be no more profligate error than to have invested so deeply in the scientificinsights of recent years and then tofail to use them to meet the present crisis.