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A Living Nightmare, by Earl Maucker, Sun-Sentinel Editor

Imagine a health disaster just off Florida's shores so horrific it has the potential to destroy more than 30,000 lives in a single year.

Imagine you are living with that threat, with neither the understanding of what is happening, nor the resources to combat it. Your neighbors appear totally oblivious to your problem. Your cries for help go unanswered.

Even more frustrating, the problem comes with stigmas so strong that your own government is reluctant to face it -- even if it had the means to do so.

Unfortunately, this is no imaginary tale. Many of our neighbors in the Caribbean are living this nightmare each and every day.

We urge you to take some time this weekend to read the stories and view the photos and graphics in our special report, "Witness to an Epidemic -- AIDS in the Caribbean."

Let me warn you -- it may not be easy.

The facts in this report are alarming. And many of the images will disturb you.

The hard facts and the stark images are the only way to tell a story of such enormous human tragedy, which can only grow worse unless help arrives.

It is also a story of colossal frustration because the means exist to at least slow this rampant epidemic, but the necessary commitment to apply those means, both here and in the Caribbean nations, does not.

A team of reporters and photographers spent six months documenting the situation.

They traveled to the most troubled lands in the Caribbean, including the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Jamaica and Puerto Rico, to document the extent of the epidemic. Staff in our Havana, Cuba, bureau also participated.

Their findings make up the special 24-page report, which you'll find inserted in today's newspaper.

What they found is deeply disturbing.

AIDS is growing throughout the Caribbean at a critical rate. The region now is second only to sub-Saharan Africa in the percentage of adults infected.

And, while this disease has a devastating effect on these island nations, many residents in South Florida either don't know or don't care what is happening.

Yet, we must.

The ties between the Caribbean and South Florida -- tourism, immigration, family and trade -- grow ever stronger.

The impending catastrophe cannot be ignored.

We are publishing this special report not to create undue fear, but to educate South Floridians to the extent of this crisis. Now is not the time to turn away from our neighbors and the realities they are facing, but to offer help and understanding as we all seek solutions.

Attitudes about AIDS that we witnessed in the United States during the early '80s, and which provoked ignorance and hate here, are being mirrored in the Caribbean, and must be overcome.

"It's the beginnings of a catastrophe," said Dr. Peggy McEvoy, the recently retired Caribbean chief of the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS. "The Caribbean region is where Africa was. If you don't get control of it now, it's going to be devastating to every country in the region."

It is critical to understand that South Florida is a key part of the same region.

This is a calamity on our doorstep.

Copyright 2001, Sun-Sentinel Co. & South Florida Interactive, Inc.

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