A History of HIV & AIDS – 1987

The first drug licensed to treat HIV was Zidovudine, (AZT). Dr. Robert E. Windom, assistant secretary for health at the Health and Human Services Department, emphasized that AZT, to be sold under the trade name Retrovir, is not a cure for AIDS (sic) but he said the action “means that significant medical relief will be available to thousands of those afflicted with this dreaded disease.”

Windom said that licensing of the drug, “Marks an important step but by no means a final victory in our ongoing war against AIDS.” AZT was expected to be expensive, costing each patient as much as $10,000 a year.

Final approval of AZT, first administered to AIDS patients in human studies begun in July, 1985, came in record time, the result of a decision by the Food and Drug Administration to consider AIDS drugs as a top regulatory priority. Typically, the process takes an average of 8½ years from the earliest studies to licensing, AZT smashed this timeframe and was licenced after just 2 years.

Soon after its introduction, activists establish the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) to challenge high drug prices and rally on Wall Street where “17 homosexual-rights protestors” were arrested, charged then released.

AIDS activism continues around the world to raise awareness of HIV and AIDS, and to challenge the stigma and prejudice faced by those living the disease. In the US, the AIDS memorial quilt is displayed for the first time during the National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights.

The US government closes its country’s borders to HIV-positive immigrants and visitors which eventually lead to many non-profit organisations to boycott the international AIDS conference in San Francisco in 1990. By 1992, the conference moves from Boston to Amsterdam because of America’s border controls.

An advert featuring The Grim Reaper was launched in Australia to warn people about the dangers of HIV was launched by the National Advisory Committee on AIDS (NACAIDS). The advertisement depicted the Grim Reaper in a bowling alley, bowling over various people from men and women to babies and toddlers, knocking over human ‘pins’ which represented people with HIV.  The commercial first screened on 5 April 1987 and was highly controversial; one reason is the unfortunate blow to the gay community, which had already taken the lead in AIDS awareness and safe sex practices.

The Grim Reaper became identified with gay men rather than as the Reaper which was unintentional, however viewers believed that the Reaper was people with HIV infection, rather than the Reaper harvesting the dead.

The commercial was widely criticised at the time, but it succeeded in creating widespread discussion about AIDS.

1987 also marked a UK Government Cabinet Committee devoted to combatting the epidemic. £20 million was earmarked for a publicity campaign, £5 million of which was to be spent on television commercials which could be adapted for cinema. The dilemma facing the government and advertising agency was whether to use shock tactics, as recommended by health groups or take heed of moral campaigners like Mary Whitehouse, who called for the promotion of “monogamy, not sexual precautions”. Another contentious issue was whether to overturn the Independent Broadcasting Authority’s restriction on commercials recommending condom use.

The result was a hard-hitting campaign containing apocalyptic images of icebergs, crumbling mountains and falling monoliths crashing on our screens.  The aim was to shock people into practising safer sex.

The most remembered of the five advertisements were Tombstone and Iceberg, with their iconic, nightmarish imagery, compounded by John Hurt’s chilling commentary.

The television advertisement campaign was accompanied by educational television and radio programmes on AIDS and related leaflets, bearing the ‘Don’t Die of Ignorance’, slogan were sent to every home in the country. (Click the image above for a copy).  Despite widespread apprehension, the campaign was later acknowledged that it had been successful in precipitating more open discussion about AIDS in the media.

Although cases of AIDS in the UK had remained low, due in part to high profile campaigns, it had become a global epidemic, by this time, the World Health Organisation had been notified of nearly 44,000 cases of AIDS in 91 countries including the cases first recorded in the Soviet Union.

At a time with high ignorance and constant struggle in the face of stigma and discrimination, most of the population thought you could get AIDS from touching someone or sharing equipment or facilities. This was the experience of Mike Sisco, a gay man with HIV.

Mike simply took a dip in a local swimming pool. Word spread quickly, and by the next day fear, panic and rumours – including one that claimed Mike had spit on food at a grocery store—had forced the pool to be closed and prompted a front-page banner headline in the local newspaper which also made the national news.

Mike says that when he went swimming at the pool, the lifeguard was the first person to recognise him, but soon the other bathers did as well. “They kind of ran like in those science fiction movies where Godzilla walks into the street.”

This wasn’t the first time the community had reacted negatively to seeing Mike in public. He says he returned home after contracting AIDS (sic) while living in Dallas. He says his illness quickly became known in the community through the whispers of small-town gossip.  The Opera Winfrey show examed the case in an hour long special filmed at the town hall.

Watch Mike tell Oprah his story in his own words here  and read more about it here.

At a time when panic, fear, prejudice, stigma and discrimination were wide spread, people with HIV were often rejected by friends and family, and ostracised by society, there seemed to be little hope of educating socialy. What was needed was a public figure to openly demonstrate that HIV could not be caught by sharing cups, towels or even air and that support came in the form of Princess Diana.

Diane was drawn to people she felt were not treated fairly and did not receive the support they deserved. She understood that people living with HIV were desperately in need of understanding and support and that is why HIV was a cause she supported so passionately.

She knew that her public profile meant any cause she supported would receive enormous public attention and recognition. For this reason, she chose to support causes which were not considered popular and glamorous – as she knew it was these causes she could make a major difference to.

Princess Diana worked tirelessly both in front of the cameras and behind the scenes to support people living with HIV and to change society’s attitude to HIV – whether visiting HIV positive people in hospital, opening wards, attending conferences and events or supporting fundraising initiatives.

Princess Diana’s commitment and dedication to raising the profile of HIV helped challenge the stigma of the virus. She often publically wore a red ribbon and was the first prominent public figure in the UK to be pictured holding the hand of a person with AIDS in his hospital bed. This iconic image was seen by millions all over the world and had an amazing effect in challenging attitudes towards people living with HIV and breaking down stigma and misconceptions.

In Leicester, an initial meeting brings together around 40 people with an interest in practical action to address the issues related around AIDS and HIV.  A general meeting adopts a constitution and elects a management committee which carries on the work of an initial steering group forming links with other agencies pursuing funding and seeking premises.  The organisation is called: Leicestershire AIDS Support Services.

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One response to “A History of HIV & AIDS – 1987

  1. Pingback: A History of HIV & AIDS – 1990 | LASS