A couple weeks ago, Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi declared before a group of African leaders that "All you have to do is observe the rules. If you are straight, you have nothing to fear from AIDS."

Some in the audience laughed, presumably out of shock, because issuing such a preposterous statement in a country ravaged by a deadly disease is far from comical.

At a time when HIV/AIDS is spreading exponentially and its deadly grip knows no boundaries, it's unfathomable someone would say heterosexuals need not fret themselves with contracting the disease.

Ignorance often has deadly ramifications. And so does apathy.

The latter is being blamed in part for a rise in HIV diagnoses here in the United States.

Earlier this week, the CDC reported that HIV rates rose among gay and bisexual men for the third straight year. This raised concern because infection rates were on the decline throughout the 1990s among these groups.

The CDC says some people no longer take the deadly disease as seriously as they once did partly because of life-lengthening AIDS drugs. People look at Magic Johnson and others who for several years wage a heroic battle against this cruel disease and think, "He looks good. He looks healthy. Maybe AIDS isn't the death sentence it once was."

While various drugs and cocktails are a godsend to those battling this cruel disease, the fact remains that prevention is by far the best medicine. There is no cure for this disease, thus HIV/AIDS is hardly something to take lightly. One Web site offers a clear picture of the impact of this disease: "Latest AIDS statistics: 40,000,000 infected; 00,000,000 cured."

The CDC also cites some have wearied from years of safe-sex messages and that others, among the younger generations, have a foggy recollection, if any, of the devastation of the AIDS epidemic.

The lax attitude is a recipe for disaster.

The CDC says 42 million people worldwide are infected with HIV. In the United States alone, more than 380,000 people die each year from AIDS; someone in the United States is infected every 13 minutes with HIV; and someone in the United States dies every 11 minutes from AIDS.

President Bush and other world leaders are earmarking billions to battle the disease. But that does not absolve individuals of their responsibility to preserve their health. In the year 2003, we should be gaining ground on the HIV/AIDS epidemic, not falling behind.

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