LISA Ross is one person who won't talk about work when she's on a date - as one of Hong Kong's top AIDS experts, the conversation easily gets around to some prematurely explicit talk, and talk of a devastating sexually transmitted disease can be a real blow to a romantic evening. Apart from not carrying business cards on Sundays, that's about the only time when one of the founding members of AIDS Concern is not on the job, promoting awareness about the spread of AIDS and encouraging compassion in the territory where many misconceptions still prevail. She was also the prime mover behind last night's gala premiere of the film Philadelphia, for which Tom Hanks won his best actor Academy Award. Proceeds went to AIDS Concern and it is hoped that the Hollywood film, which opens here on Thursday, will help promote awareness of the disease in Hong Kong as it has done in America. In 1985, Hong Kong's first HIV-positive diagnosis was made and the Government quickly swung into action with a small, but dedicated band of health care workers at Queen Elizabeth Hospital, which provided everything from patient care to pamphlets on AIDS and HIV. Five years later AIDS Concern began, first with a hotline, taking the AIDS awareness message to the community level. It is work done at a grassroots level, which Lisa believes is the most effective, and it is an approach she encouraged when she helped establish AIDS Concern and later became its chief executive administrator and spokesperson. ''I just knew that the only way you could get this to be seen as an issue for the entire community was when the community got involved. It's only at the community level that the message gets across, the message that AIDS is an important issue for Asia and people need to learn all they can and protect themselves,'' said Lisa. ''We decided our niche early on, to work at a grassroots level, providing information and support to people who were positive or had AIDS. ''We really struggled in the first year to recruit local Hong Kong Chinese to work as volunteers - they didn't want to know about it, they didn't want to get involved, but that has completely changed in the past 12 months.'' It was a letter to the editor in the South China Morning Post asking for people with knowledge and experience in the AIDS arena which drew Lisa to a voluntary organisation, Comfort, Care and Concern. Soon a splinter charity group was formed, AIDS Concern. The same seven core members are still directly involved with AIDS Concern today. Caring for AIDS sufferers and people who had been diagnosed as HIV-positive was what Lisa had been doing for a number of years in San Francisco. Against the wishes of her parents and boyfriend and in the face of being ostracised by other health care workers, she volunteered to become part of a team of doctors, psychologists and nurses at an AIDS Unit. That was in 1985. Tens of thousands of people had already died from the disease and both the US Government and the general public were struggling to know how to contain and treat this epidemic as well as counsel the diagnosed. ''Most of the politicians in charge at the beginning of the epidemic didn't think it was a big deal, it was just a bunch of gay people who were dying. I'm not really a big fan of how they handled it.'' AT the time, all the experience she had had with AIDS was academic. ''I hadn't known anyone who was [HIV] positive. I had a fair number of gay friends, but I had never known anyone to be ill. It was a topic that in one way was interesting because it was abrand new disease and there was a lot of need for proper information and proper education.'' The same needs faced Lisa and the core AIDS Concern Team in 1990 - the need for correct information and the need to bust some damaging stereotypes. While much has been achieved, there are still many people in Hong Kong who think AIDS is purely a gay disease - the fastest growing group is in fact heterosexual - and that it won't happen to them. ''The most worrying community attitude is, 'I don't want to be around anyone with AIDS', and that's something that really has to be addressed,'' Lisa said. But the problem is a chicken and egg dilemma. ''There is so much important awareness that happens when people are public, when people can say, 'Look, I have AIDS, I'm HIV-positive and I present no risk to you'. ''That is a very powerful community awareness tool, but at the moment the only person we have is Mike Sinclair and he's expat and gay, which reinforces the myth. ''The fact is that most people who are HIV-positive are Chinese, but in the current climate where there is so much fear and discrimination, they're not going to come out.'' The number of HIV-positive cases recorded by the Health Department stands at 429, but the department itself admits that true figure is anywhere between 5,000 and 7,000. ''People have to have compassion and understanding, until that happens, no one is going to come forward. They'll talk to health care workers, but only if it's anonymous.'' Lisa understands the reticence of the HIV-positive and AIDS patients she has come in contact with all too well. ''There is a real possibility of them losing their jobs, of their family being scorned and of them being thrown out of their neighbourhood.'' Lisa would like to see the Government lead by example and adopt a non-discrimination employment policy as a model for the private sector. She also wishes all hospitals had mandatory AIDS education for every health care worker. A lot has been achieved by both the Government and volunteer organisations to get across the facts about AIDS and dispel irrational fears, but more work needs to be done, says Lisa. ''There needs to be a lot more education about prevention, very specific information about how it is passed, and it needs to happen in a way that is a lot more community orientated. We need everyone at the community level talking about this, whether it'schurches, schools, women's groups or youth groups.'' Collaboration between the various government bodies and groups which are now prepared to take on AIDS projects would be of great benefit, believes Lisa, and she is encouraged by the promise of the Government's AIDS Advisory Council that it will make territory-wide co-ordination a priority. ''The trick is to get some clarity now because there are all sorts of groups who want to do AIDS-related projects and the more people who come on board the better, but then it's even more important that it's all co-ordinated. That's what we don't have here, we don't have any co-ordinating body for sharing information.'' Lisa is in the process of handing over the AIDS Concern reins to Oi C. Lin, who has been appointed executive administrator. It is a deliberate move towards localisation as the overwhelming majority of the people responding to the outstretched hand of thecharity group are now Hong Kong Chinese. It was time to move on, says Lisa, but AIDS awareness will still be her passion. She's taking her expertise to the private sector with her own company, Information For Life. The corporate sector, in Hong Kong and the rest of Asia, needs to accept that AIDS will touch them, that they cannot avoid the fact that some of their employees will one day test HIV-positive, says Lisa. Employees need to learn that they can safely work alongside an HIV-positive colleague without putting themselves at risk, she adds. It is, says Lisa, another AIDS slog. ''People ask me why I've done AIDS work for almost 10 years now because it can be frustrating in terms of people's denial or ignorance or their mistreatment of people who are positive. ''And it can be very depressing - I myself have known over 50 people who have died of AIDS and that's a lot of people to know quite well that are young and dying. But I think it's because of all the people I've met over the years, the people who have worked with me and the people who are coping with the disease. ''You learn so much from people who have a limited life span. If you only have five or 10 years to live then you really work out what is important to you and live your life according to that. That's probably the most important thing I've learnt from people with AIDS - I don't always practise it - but it's all the people I've met who have kept me in it.''