World AIDS Day
A very brief and incomplete history of AIDS
Arrival of a pandemic
AIDS came upon the world suddenly in the late 1970s. It arrived by stealth – a new and lethal infectious disease spreading increasingly rapidly with uncertain means of transmission and a lengthy period between infection and the development of symptoms. Infection with HIV – the virus that causes AIDS – was a death sentence and it disfigured before it killed.
AIDS terrorised the world. Anyone with signs of the disease attracted a stigma the likes of which had not been seen since the decline of leprosy. People with AIDS were made pariahs who people feared to touch. There was widespread paranoia and urban rumours abounded. People engaged in awfulising – imagining the doomsday scenarios where AIDS might be spread through sharing crockery and cutlery, eating in restaurants becoming deadly as bullfights, or that shaking hands with someone with AIDS might lead to infection.
Slow scientific progress
Only later was it discovered that AIDS was a condition caused by infection with the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV). The same fears continued, developing a further layer of stigma and ‘moralising’ when it was found that HIV was most commonly transmitted through unprotected sex and needle sharing among drug addicts. Bad luck if you caught the disease from an infected blood transfusion, the sad fate of many people with haemophilia.
A faster rate of spread and higher incidence levels of the disease among gay and bisexual men fuelled the rampant homophobia of the time, leading to some calling AIDS the “gay plague”. This misnomer was inherently dangerous because it allowed heterosexual people to pretend that the HIV/AIDS pandemic was something that was only happening to ‘other people’, giving them a false sense of security. In truth, death and disease do not discriminate: they will come for anyone given half a chance.
Enter the modern age
The stigma has lessened over the years as the urban myths were dispelled, understanding grew, and treatments arrived that can now both reduce HIV virus load to an undetectable level, effectively preventing onward transmission in some people and can be taken prophylactically to prevent HIV infection from occurring in the first place even if an individual is exposed to the virus. The development of an effective vaccine has been frustratingly slow but research is still ongoing.
Ignorance and misinformation has killed more people than anything else in the history of HIV/AIDS, and is by far the greatest risk factor in the spread of HIV today.
Educate yourself to protect yourself
There is no better time than World AIDS Day to arm yourself with knowledge and a deeper understanding of HIV/AIDS, how it is spread, how infection can be prevented and treated, and how to reduce your risk of ever becoming infected. There is lots of information available online from: