World Aids Day was first observed on December 1, 1988.

The intention was to bring greater awareness to HIV – the virus behind AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome)  and honour all those affected by the killer disease.

This annual event has now become the longest-running disease awareness initiative in the history of public health.

Over its 34-year life span representations of HIV/AIDS and those suffering from it have morphed almost unrecognisably.

Since it first emerged, AIDs has been controversial – surrounded by scientific inaccuracy, social stigma and moral panic. This article tracks changes in public discourse in the west through a sample of headlines in the mainstream US and UK media from 1981 – when AIDS first appeared in US news reports – to the frenetic alarmism of the British tabloids in the mid-80s – to the emergence of some positive representation in the 90’s – through to the more global, factual, solutions journalism witnessed in the new millennium.

Photo: Kate Holt/ Jphiego/ Guardian/ Arete. Matwsie Serati who is HIV positive and taking ARV’s sits on her bed looking through photographs of her brothers and sisters who have died in Maseuru, Lesotho. Matwsie had five brothers and sisters who have died, three from TB and one from confirmed HIV who left four children behind. Lesotho has the second highest HIV prevalence rate in the world with twenty six percent of adults being HIV positive and nearly 5000 people dying last year from AIDs. Poverty, lack of education and alcohol abuse are contributing factors. Jhpiego is supporting many initiatives to combat this including project to encourage people to use PrEP.

This account highlights the progress made through the years while facing up to shameful misinformation and prejudice spread by the media. If we are to address the present and future of the global AIDS situation, we need to understand the nature of the narrative that has gone before.

As early as 1983 – even while the virus was far from understood – it was clear AIDS was a global issue. Studies had shown that the virus was present in Africa long before its emergence in the West and that it was largely transmitted through heterosexual sex. Despite this, for years narratives became dominated by homophobia, victim-blaming and racism.

There have been myths about its origins in bestiality, misinformation about transmission, even beliefs that AIDS is somehow God’s punishment for sin, and on top of that flat-out denialism!

Sufferers were turned into modern-day lepers.

As we move through this timeline, it is clear to see the progression in how stories around HIV/AIDS are reported.



2 Mysterious Diseases Killing Homosexuals

  • The Washington Post

‘It may be that both are piggybacking on the severe breakdown of the immune system in these men… But why only men? Why only homosexuals? And why in healthy men who had no apparent challenges to their immune systems?’



 US Gay Blood Plague Kills Three in Britain

  • The Sun


April 1984

New U.S Report Names Virus That May Cause AIDS

  • The New York Times

‘…the finding led the American researchers to express the hope that a vaccine would be developed and ready for testing ‘in about two years.’


October 1984

AIDS Studies Hint Saliva May Transmit Infection

  • The New York Times

‘…researchers said in interviews yesterday that they are convinced the studies raise real public health concerns.’


January 1985

Britain Threatened by gay virus plague

  • The Mail on Sunday


February 1985

It’s spreading like wildfire.

  • The Sun


July 1985

Hudson has AIDS, spokesman says

  • The New York Times

[Actor Rock Hudson becomes first major public figure to announce he has AIDS – he died in October later that year]

 ‘Asked how the actor acquired the disease, which most frequently strikes homosexuals, intravenous drug users and recipients of blood transfusions, Miss. Collart said, ”He doesn’t have any idea now how he contracted AIDS. Nobody around him has AIDS.”’



“I’d shoot my son if he had AIDS”, says Vicar

– The Sun

‘…to make his point, the Rev Robert Simpson climbed a hill behind his church and aimed a shotgun at his 18-year-old son Chris.’



Don’t Die of Ignorance

[UK AIDS Awareness Campaign featuring actor John Hurt airs in cinemas and on television]

While still alarmist, this campaign is said to have been a turning point in acknowledging the fact that “anyone can get it”, rather than blaming the homosexual population.



[1st World AIDS Day to bring awareness to HIV, as well as to commemorate those affected by the disease]


Diana opens Landmark Aids Centre

  • BBC

‘The Princess of Wales has opened a new Aids centre in south-east London.

She gave director Jonathan Grimshaw – diagnosed HIV positive five years ago – a firm handshake before going inside the Landmark Centre in Tulse Hill for a private tour.

This was the first attempt to de-stigmatise the condition by a high-profile member of the Royal Family’



Ryan White dies of AIDS at 18; his struggle helped pierce myths

  • The New York Times

 ‘Ryan, a haemophiliac who contracted the virus through a blood transfusion, died of complications of AIDS… publicity helped pierce myths about AIDS, helping health experts and educators emphasise that it is not transmitted by casual contact, that it affects people from many walks of life and that although always fatal, the infection leaves many people able to continue normal lives for years.

Ryan White became a household name in 1985, when as a 14-year-old he began his successful fight to attend the public school in Kokomo that had banned him amid a clamor of fearful students and their parents.’



Basketball; Magic Johnson Ends His Career, Saying He Has AIDS Infection

  • The New York Times

‘Magic Johnson, one of the most popular and accomplished players in basketball history, said today that he had been infected by the virus that causes AIDS and that he would retire immediately from the Los Angeles Lakers…’

[Johnson made his announcement live on CNN, and specifically said he did not have AIDS, but had contracted the HIV virus – despite this the press still widely reported the former to be true. Notwithstanding, HIV now had a high-profile heterosexual African American spokesperson who would prove to do positive work to change perceptions about the virus. Two weeks later Freddie Mercury announced he had contracted the virus and the next day became the first high profile British figure to die from AIDS related illness]



Healthy, Gay, Guilt-Stricken: AIDS’ Toll on the Virus-Free

  • The New York Times 

‘At age 40, Jaffe Cohen says he feels “older than everybody else.” After stalking his circle of friends for more than a decade, AIDS has snatched and killed dozens of his contemporaries and left him with such a backlog of grief that sometimes when he is listening to music or relaxing under a hot shower he startles himself by letting out a sob.’



[The Joint United Nations Programme on AIDS (UNAIDS) was established to advocate for global action on the epidemic and coordinate the response to HIV and AIDS across the UN]

February 12, 1996 cover of Time




Clinton Declares Crisis Among Minorities

  • USA Today

‘SWAT teams of public health experts, AIDS specialists, epidemiologists and other federal health officials will design and implement education, outreach and treatment programs in minority communities with a high incidence of HIV or AIDS. One third of the funding will go toward substance abuse programs and protease inhibitors while the remainder will go to developing new strategies for preventing the spread of AIDS.’



Drugs firms withdraw from Aids case

  • BBC

‘The world’s biggest pharmaceutical companies have backed out of a landmark court battle over cheap, non-branded anti-Aids drugs.

The 39 firms had brought legal action to fight legislation which would allow generic versions of their patented drugs being made in or imported to South Africa… However, the South African Government argued that it desperately needed cheap medication to help the 4.7 million South Africans infected with HIV or Aids.’


Flirting with Death: the UK’s First AIDS ‘Cluster’

  • The Independent

‘After 20 years of public-health campaigns about Aids, it seems that complacency is setting in. And nowhere more so than among heterosexuals, many of whom still believe that Aids is something that should concern gays, drug-users and Africans, but not them. They are wrong. In 1999, heterosexually acquired, new cases of HIV overtook homosexually acquired infection for the first time in the UK.’


June 2004

Bush Backs Condom Use to Prevent Spread of AIDS

–      The New York Times

‘President Bush said on Wednesday for the first time that the United States should ”learn from the experience” of countries like Uganda in fighting AIDS and embraced the use of condoms to prevent its spread, a sensitive issue among conservative groups that have fought the adoption of any strategy that does not focus on abstinence.’

September 2004

Europe Unites for New Aids Battle

  • BBC

‘The conference in Vilnius, Lithuania, heard calls for European leaders to do more to fight Aids, described by one as “the silent plague of our times”.’



‘Out of Control: AIDS in Black America’

– abc news.

‘As the world marked the 25th anniversary of the first reported cases of AIDS this summer, one important story was mostly ignored: AIDS is an epidemic in the African American community and it’s spreading fast.’



Circumcision cuts by half the risk of Aids

  • The Times

‘Circumcising adult men may cut by half their risk of getting the HIV-Aids virus through heterosexual intercourse, the US Government announced yesterday as it concluded two studies in Africa testing the link.’



Britons may be more vulnerable to Aids due to Roman invasion

–      The Telegraph

‘Researchers found that people who live in lands conquered by the Roman army have less protection against HIV than those in countries they never reached

They say a gene which helps make people less susceptible to HIV occurs in greater frequency in areas of Europe that the Roman Empire did not stretch to.’


September 2009

AIDS vaccine “important step” against disease

– Reuters

‘An experimental AIDS vaccine made from two failed products has protected people for the first time, reducing the rate of infection by about 30 percent, researchers said on Thursday.’


December 2009

Killer Syndrome: The Aids Denialists

– The Independent

‘In the first week of November, a record number of Aids denialists from 28 countries, including Britain, attended the Rethinking Aids conference in Oakland, California.’



Vatican shifts ground on condoms, HIV, conception

  • NBC news

‘In a seismic shift on one of the most profound — and profoundly contentious — Roman Catholic teachings, the Vatican said that condoms are the lesser of two evils when used to curb the spread of AIDS, even if their use prevents a pregnancy.’



World Aids Day: Victory is within reach, but cuts could spoil it all

  • The Independent

‘Just as Obama announces ‘the beginning of the end’ for Aids, funding is being slashed.’



End of AIDS a worthy legacy for Obama

  • USA Today 

‘In his State of the Union Address, President Obama stated with confidence that the promise of an AIDS-free generation is within our reach. Scientists and HIV/AIDS experts agree…’


July 2014

Aids epidemic under control by 2030 ‘is possible’


‘There is a chance the Aids epidemic can be brought under control by 2030, according to a report by the United Nations Aids agency.’

July 2014

Decriminalise sex work to help control Aids pandemic, scientists demand

–      The Guardian

Photo: Kate Holt/ Jphiego/ Guardian/ Arete. Makananelo Mochasane, who is a sex worker, walks along the side of the road at night to get customers in Maseuru Lesotho. Makananelo is HIV positive and taking ARV’s. Lesotho has the second highest HIV prevalence rate in the world with twenty six percent of adults being HIV positive. Jhpiego is supporting many initiatives to combat this including a project to encourage people to use PrEP.


Gay or Bisexual Black Men Have 50 Percent Risk of HIV

  • NBC News

‘The average American has just a 1 percent risk of ever being infected with the AIDS virus, but gay and bisexual black men have a 50 percent risk.’



HIV hairdresser Daryll Rowe handed life sentence

  • Sky News

‘Daryll Rowe faces life in jail for ‘deliberate campaign’ to infect men he met on the gay dating app Grindr.’



UK ‘on course’ to be HIV-free nation by 2030 – as rates fall to lowest level in two decades

  • The Sun

‘New diagnoses fell by just over a quarter from 6,721 in 2015 to 4,484 last year, Public Health England said.’


In This Pandemic, Personal Echoes of the AIDS Crisis

  • The New York Times

‘Are the parallels in the nature of the viruses, or just an old story about America that had never changed?’



Women Living with HIV share their stories

–     Daily Mail

‘Women reveal what it’s REALLY like to live with HIV including missing out on having children and hiding it for years due to shame – but say they’re ‘left out of the narrative’ because it’s seen as a “gay man’s disease”’


Unravelling the history of the western media’s complex relationship with AIDS can be disturbing. But this World AIDS Day, UNAIDS is highlighting uncomfortable economic, social, cultural and legal inequalities which must be ended urgently if we are to end HIV transmissions by 2030.

This stark reminder of the social and cultural obstacles activism has already overcome, of the inequalities that led to the marginalisation of people affected by the virus, and clear evidence of how changed perceptions changed headlines offers hope. IF we keep telling stories in a thoughtful and positive way, we can effect real change in attitudes toward HIV/AIDS.

Photo: Quinn Mattingly/ Frontline AIDS/ Arete. A close-up shows a thank you note to Doan Thanh Tung (31), Lighthouse Executive Director, adorns a shelf at their clinic in Hanoi, Vietnam. Frontline AIDS, in partnership with the Elton John AIDS Foundation (EJAF), has provided emergency COVID-19 grants to community-based organisations such as Lighthouse, a Vietnam-based community organisation that helps individuals most affected by HIV.

This article may have illustrated some progress around reporting and understanding of HIV/AIDS in some parts of the world. However, there is still some way to go in many other areas around the globe.

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