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When realism and compassion are called for

The medical profession still has many questions about what it calls AIDS, an ailment supposed to reduce physical immunity to other diseases. Of at least one thing doctors seem sure: that public fear of infection has become an unnecessary complication in the situation.

The news media are recognizing the problem under headlines such as ''The real epidemic: fear and despair.'' Public and private health officials are trying to ease the alarm with statements such as the one by the chief epidemiologist of a federal task force on the subject: ''Suddenly the facts are being misinterpreted to suggest that somehow AIDS is lurking in every swimming pool, the subways, on plates in restaurants, just everywhere. That is simply not the case.''

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Just this week another federal official noted that the national rate of increase in reported cases appeared to be dropping. (Some 1,640 cases, including about 640 fatalities, have now been reported.) In New York, which accounts for 45 percent of the cases, the increase seems to have leveled off, instead of doubling as predicted earlier, said the health commissioner.

Both media and medical people face the challenge of exposing false fears without contributing to them by manner of presentation. Possibilities for sensationalism have to be resisted when most of the cases have been linked to homosexual relations or drug addiction. Also to be resisted are the current examples of unreasoning ostracism of members of ''high-risk'' groups just when realism and compassion are most called for.

Government can foster realism by expediting research on the unanswered questions that tempt fearful leaping to wrong conclusions. Individuals can do the same by recognizing that eliminating fear is an important step in dealing with any human problem - and that all can partake of that love of God which casts out fear.

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