This year, for the first time, the AIDS pandemic will kill well over a million people worldwide. Last year, according to the United Nations, 980,000 people died of AIDS-related diseases. In 1996, the UN estimates the total will be 1,120,000. And that is only the beginning. Last year alone, according to the latest data, the number of people with the symptoms of AIDS jumped 25 per cent to 1.3 million. On average, the appearance of full-blown AIDS lags behind infection with the HIV virus that causes it by about a decade. With an estimated 21 million adults world wide already infected with the virus, and an additional 7,500 new infections every day, the prospects for the coming decades are grim indeed. The most disheartening statistic of all, though its exact magnitude is disputed, is that the number of children infected with HIV runs into the millions. About one in three children born to an infected mother will also become infected. These bald facts alone should be enough to make people sit up and question their behaviour. Are they indulging in high-risk activities of any kind, whether sexual or drugs related? Could they lessen the risk by the use of prophylactics or by sharing or reusing needles? Are they running the risk of passing the disease on to others? Do their prospective victims have any inkling of the risk they are taking? It is easy to be cynical about human nature and assume that people are too irresponsible, evil or stupid to change their lifestyles. Such cynicism is only partly justified. It is clear that in Europe and North America, where populations have been subjected to a barrage of information, propaganda and exhortation, the rate of infection of AIDS has fallen dramatically. In parts of East Africa and Thailand, where public information campaigns have had a real impact, once-rapid rates of infection are at last showing signs of stabilising: that is to say, they are slowing to the point where the number of new cases is little or no higher than the number of people dying. Understanding of the way AIDS is passed on and the implications of certain self-destructive behaviour can change the way people behave. But in many countries - particularly developing countries - it will take more than education alone to produce the deep socio-cultural changes required. Sadly, in China, Vietnam and elsewhere in Asian and African regions which have some of the highest rates of infection, ignorance about the disease and high-risk behaviour persists. It is not only lack of education which keeps people in ignorance of the dangers: governments do not always disseminate information people need to make their own decisions as a matter of policy. Some like to pretend that their countries are morally superior to their critics and suppress information which undermines that perception. By the time they wake up to the dangers, it is too late. Perhaps worse is the fear of violating ancient ingrained cultural taboos against talking about sex or even admitting extra-marital sex takes place. For as long as people prefer to fool themselves into imagining that extra-marital sex is a Western problem, little can be done to change the habits of those whose behaviour fails to conform to that perception. The least open societies are often also those where women are kept in greater ignorance than men, and where it is hardest to save women from infection by errant husbands. A man may not, in such societies, admit the danger to a woman he does not see as an equal. It would be naive to assume that the spread of AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases will ever disappear entirely. The cynical view of human nature is not entirely misplaced. There will always be some who are prepared to play Russian roulette with forbidden pleasures. There are enough highly educated people, including medical doctors, who smoke, despite knowing the risks. There will no doubt also be people who will continue mindlessly to practise unprotected sex with strangers, or with people whose histories they know little or nothing about. Society may not have the moral right to forbid such self-destructive indulgences, and, in any case, bans would simply drive them underground, seriously increase the exploitation of sex workers and play into the hands of organised crime in the process. The most effective means of change remains mass education and information campaigns, the provision and legalisation of contraceptives and the provision of needles to drug addicts. Perhaps the most important step of all lies in arousing the sense of responsibility which is the best weapon against AIDS. It may be every individual's right to risk harming himself or herself. But it is everybody's moral responsibility not to inflict that harm on to others - particularly without giving them the information to assess the risk for themselves.