World AIDS Day is an opportunity to show support for people living with HIV and AIDS and to commemorate those we have sadly lost.

The National AIDS Trust have launched their 2023 campaign for donations to ensure people living with HIV have the health, dignity and equality they deserve.       



In early 1982, a 37 year-old man was admitted to St. Thomas's Hospital in London. He was found to be suffering from a rare strain of pneumonia that had completely depleted his immune system and confounded his doctors. By summer, the man was dead. He was the UK's first AIDS case. His name was Terrence Higgins. A UK gay newspaper, Capital Gay, broke the news with the headline: 'US Disease Hits London'.

By 1983, AIDS began making headlines in the mainstream press. This time the spin on the story was less sympathetic. An article in the Times dismissed the disease as a problem of "undesirable minorities". Widely regarded as such, the Sun ran the headline: 'The Gay Plague'.
The UK gay community quickly treated the threat as an emergency. Following Higgins' death, a benefit was held at the gay club Heaven (where he worked as a bar manager) to raise cash for AIDS research. A charity was then set up to administer the money raised. The Terrence Higgins Trust soon became the leading HIV/AIDS charity in the UK and the largest voluntary sector HIV service provider in Europe. Other hands-on gay support groups throughout the UK followed suit.
In contrast, the UK Government adopted a policy of passivity. It seemed the main reason for its reticence to respond was an unwillingness to be seen to be wasting taxpayers money on repugnant reprobates. Appeasing the prejudices of a conservative electorate was politically more important than the deaths of a few degenerates. Besides, we had brought it upon ourselves - unlike haemophiliacs with HIV who were presented as "innocent victims". AIDS, we were constantly told, was our come-uppance.
By the end of 1985 the number of UK AIDS cases had risen to 401. As it was widely assumed that thousands more were infected, it became clear that AIDS had longer-term implications. AIDS reported in 51 countries and much loved and admired actor Rock Hudson dies with AIDS.
In December, following a visit to San Francisco, the Health Minister announced that 2.5 million would be spent on a public information campaign remarking that "public education is the only vaccine we have". A leaflet was sent out to every household in the country with the message: "Don't Die Of Ignorance". Ads appeared in the national press, and TV campaigns displayed images of icebergs and tombstones.

While the campaign raised awareness of AIDS, it also had a detrimental effect. It helped stigmatize gay men as sexual lepers. The Sun's medical adviser wrote: "The only people really at risk are promiscuous homosexuals ... The Department of Health and the British Medical Association have drummed up hysterical campaigns designed to scare heterosexuals and put us all off sex."

Suddenly there were calls to re-criminalise homosexuality. Compulsory testing was considered. It was even suggested to place queers in quarantine. Adopting a predictable stance, the Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, started spouting on about a return to "family values".

However, unlike the societies in which it was found, HIV/AIDS displayed no discrimination. Regardless of which groups of people, with whatever behaviours or in whatever circumstances, it first targeted, HIV/AIDS ended up spreading through all available avenues: through heterosexual/homosexual sexual transmission, through blood transfusion, drug injection and mother-to-foetus infection. Once this was discovered, and more information became available, the hysteria (although not the stigma) surrounding AIDS slowly subsided. Unfortunately, the rates of infection did the opposite and continued to rise. By the end of the '80s, 14,125 people had been diagnosed HIV, 3,542 of whom contracted AIDS. Next we look at the drugs used to help combat AIDS and their side-effects.



See OutUK's OutReach for a full listing of HIV and AIDS resources and advice organisations


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