1st of December 2009 sees the 11th World Aids Day. Between 1981 and 2007 AIDS was responsible for the death of at least 25 million people worldwide. That is such a huge number that we simply can’t imagine it but other diseases have killed just as many and more so why is it that AIDS captures the imagination and brings the worst emotions and prejudices in people? Apart from leprosy, few diseases have been as socially stigmatised as AIDS has been. To truly understand the reason for this we need to look back to the initial fear that AIDS created in the 1980s and its connections with an alternative homosexual lifestyle that was still very much underground in many societies.
As a child I remember being aware that this new disease had appeared but, living in Catholic Ireland where sex wasn’t invented until much later, I was not really aware of the connections between lifestyle and infection. I clearly remember the day that this was first brought to my attention. A religion teacher in my secondary school entered the classroom and wrote in big letters on the blackboard: AIDS THE GAY PLAGUE, and so my initiation into the world of stigmatisation was to begin.
Looking back at the hype that surrounded AIDS in the 1980s I can begin to see how my school reached a situation by the beginning of the 90s whereby they considered it acceptable for a teacher to tell a class that this virus was a punishment from God that could not be overlooked. If conventional medicine could not protect us then it was definitely time to turn to a higher power. The problem was that the fear of AIDS spread faster than the disease ever could: could you catch it from toilet seats? how about through touching an infected person? My vice-principal accidentally sent a second year class into panic by suggesting that if it ever became airborne that it would rival Bubonic Plague in its destructiveness. Obviously with a disease spreading so easily, at least in our heads, it was necessary to limit contact with the possible infected. Suddenly gay people were the enemy in a way they hadn’t been before. Yes previous to this gays had been viewed askew by many in society, and indeed imprisoned if they flaunted their lifestyles too much, but now we were given a legitimate reason to fear contact. In 1985 Life magazine ran a campaign that was entitled ‘No one is safe from AIDS’ Suddenly this ‘Gay plague’ was a problem for heterosexuals. So much so that Oprah Winfrey declared that a fifth of them would be dead by 1990. This fear of pandemic resulted in hysteria and prejudice.
Today there is the beginning of changes to this attitude as it becomes clearer that the world will not be decimated by AIDS. The disease remains a problem in both the developed and developing world and fears of it still remain to a degree. A simple search of question and answer websites will show that questions such as ‘Can HIV be transferred by smoking cigarettes?’ and ‘Can I get AIDsif I get sperm in my hair’? (both from wikianswers) shows that there is still a misunderstanding of contraction but the majority of questions seem to be around treatment and symptoms.
The theme of this year’s World Aids Day is access to treatment and Human Rights showing that the focus is moving away from the need to simply fight prejudices. People are realising that the panic of the 80s cannot be sustained and the emphasis now needs to be on helping those in poorer situations deal with the devastation that AIDS can bring to them and their families.