Not since the 1950s, when polio threatened a generation, has a disease caused as much fear and uncertainty in the United States as AIDS. Almost since the day the first cases were diagnosed there have been reports of people who have refused to come in contact with victims of the disease.
Civil rights groups and homosexual organizations say that almost no day now passes without new reports of discrimination directed at AIDS victims.
Researchers say that the disease can be contracted only through intimate sexual contact or the exchange of blood products.
"There is no question that AIDS now puts a veneer over the top of every civil rights issue we see," said Timothy Sweeney of the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, a gay civil liberties organization. "Last month a Vermont legislator tried to make it a felony for a gay man to give blood."
That proposal did not pass, but fear of AIDS has caused evictions, suggestions of quarantine, and has even led the United States military to consider giving each of its soldiers a test that could not determine whether they had AIDS, but only whether they may have ever been exposed to it.
Earlier this week, school officials in Kokomo, Ind., barred 13-year-old Ryan White from attending classes for fear that the seventh grader, who contracted the disease during treatment for hemophilia, would infect his classmates.
Other cases, particularly in the areas of housing and employment, are becoming increasingly common:
In February, Floyd Johnson, the city administrator in Broward County, Fla., fired two city employes because they had AIDS. Those cases are currently under administrative appeal.
When residents of a cooperative apartment building in New York City discovered that Dr. Joseph Sonnabend was treating AIDS patients in his office there, they moved to evict him, saying that their health was threatened. Last November, the New York state attorney general ruled in his favor.
In May, officials at the Alexandria jail forced a prisoner, Carson Bailey, to destroy his clothes and mattress and transferred him to an AIDS clinic for treatment after he registered positive on the HTLV-III antibody test. Further investigation showed he did not have the disease.
"The degree to which discrimination will increase as the caseload grows has to do with ignorance," said Thomas Stoddard, a New York Civil Liberties Union staff lawyer. "The more people think it can be spread casually, the more likely we are to see fear and bigotry prevail."