Even before people began responding to the stories about Rock Hudson, attitudes toward AIDS were beginning to change. At first the deadly virus, discovered in 1981, had been thought to be confined to discrete groups, primarily male homosexuals and drug addicts, for whom there was limited sympathy in the society at large. Some uncharitable persons even suggested that there was no public responsibility to search for a cure, since the afflicted had voluntarily chosen to engage in the conduct that leads to the disease. There are other afflictions -- alcoholism, drug addiction, venereal disease and even cigarette-induced illness -- that have caused people to react this way in the past. But all these have long since come to be regarded as ailments for which it is not just proper but essential that society use its resources to contain and cure. The same, increasingly, is true of AIDS.

There are reasons for this. For one thing, the epidemic has continued to spread at a geometric rate. On Jan. 7 of this year, there were 7,788 reported cases in the United States; today there are more than 12,000, and the figure is expected to double within a year. Since the virus was discovered, 73 percent of its victims have been male homosexuals and 17 percent intravenous-drug users. But there have been others: hemophiliacs, people who have received blood transfusions and the children of AIDS victims. The fact that the malady hit patients who received blood transfusions, a category anyone could be in at a moment's notice, also contributed to alarm in the general population.

Scientists have now solved the blood transfusion problem by developing a test that allows them to screen blood donations for AIDS antibodies. Hemophiliacs and hospital patients receiving transfusions in the future are no longer in a special risk category. They were never more than a small fraction of the victims, but it is right to capitalize on the interest and concern generated by their vulnerability. Research efforts -- the federal government will spend $126.3 million next year -- have been consistent and productive. The scientific community was well ahead of the general public in addressing this problem.

But laymen must make a contribution too. Preventive efforts, particularly among homosexuals, should be increased. And education must be a priority. Some key facts need to be made widely known: blood donors do not contract AIDS; victims do not contaminate clothing, furniture or other objects; and children most certainly do not acquire the disease by being in the same classroom with a youngster who is a victim.

Very few of us will lose our eyesight or need a kidney transplant, yet we do not hesitate to mobilize public sympathy and national resources in aid of those who do, just as we mobilize them to assault diseases associated with social and sexual conduct the majority disapproves. It is good that these things are understood. AIDS is being fought and its victims cared for not because we all have an equal risk of contracting it or because a movie star we admire is a victim or for any reason other than that thousands of our fellow citizens, most of them young, are dying slowly, painfully and in profound despair -- and we can do something to help.