Let’s talk AIDS

The 1980s seem a world away. In the last few years we have said goodbye to some of the decade’s biggest icons in music, Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson, Bowie and Prince. The mullet has given way to the man-bun and the frustrating crunching of the Rubik’s Cube just can’t compete with a Playstation game which can be stopped and restarted whenever it isn’t going your way.

But today, on World AIDS Day, we are reminded that the stigma surrounding HIV and AIDS has a lifespan which has far surpassed those of technology, fashion and music crazes, and is still very much alive 35 years on.

This year the National AIDS Trust have launched a campaign called ‘HIV Stigma: Not Retro, Just Wrong’. People have been asked to upload old and embarrassing photos from the 80s and 90s to social media using #HIVnotretro in an attempt to encourage people to leave the stigma in the past and make life easier for those suffering from the disease.

This comes almost exactly a year after American actor Charlie Sheen appeared on national television to announce that he was HIV positive. The world listened in trepidation as Sheen spoke about being blackmailed by his friends and paying out millions of dollars to keep the truth about his condition under wraps. But he ended on a hopeful note. He publicly rejected the stigma and said that he wished that it would ‘open the door’ for other sufferers to reach out for help and talk about their struggle.

It might be surprising to some that this is still the reaction we have to HIV/AIDS in the 21st century, but it’s no wonder that those who are suffering are suffering in silence.

The fountains at Barker's Pool in Sheffield glowed red today for World AIDS Day.
The fountains at Barker’s Pool in Sheffield glowed red today for World AIDS Day.


Since 1981, when the disease that would come to be known as AIDS was first reported, those affected have suffered shame and humiliation. To those on the outside looking in, it was a ‘gay cancer’ and as long as they kept well away from those affected, they’d be fine. And so a stigma was born…

In 1985, Ryan White, a 13-year-old Haemophiliac in Indiana, was refused entry to his high school. Two years later, parents in Florida banned their healthy children from attending school after three brothers at the school were diagnosed with the disease.

In the same year, Princess Diana sparked international outcry after shaking hands with a known HIV-sufferer. In the early 90s, singer Freddie Mercury and ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev denied having the disease, afraid of what it would do to their careers and public perception. People lived in fear of those who were infected, and would do anything to keep away.

More recently, the stigma has been kept alive by ignorance about the disease and how it is spread. In 2012, it was revealed that a quarter of Americans thought that HIV could be transmitted by sharing a glass of water with someone. Even now, countless myths are floating about leaving us unsure whether we can contract the disease through kissing, sharing a toothbrush or having sexual intercourse with someone affected.

Steve Slack, CEO of SAYiT, a sexual health charity based in Sheffield, stressed that teaching people about the disease and how it is spread and treated is the main aim this World AIDS Day.

“Little just seems to be being done at the moment to raise awareness,” he said.

“We need to celebrate people who bravely stand up there and sort of challenge stigma. We need to celebrate the fact that successful treatment is something that people in the 80s and 90s could only have dreamt of really.”

He added: “There’s still more to do and we are losing the battle.”

HIV/AIDS is still one of the leading causes of death worldwide and it’s about time we spoke about it. We can’t go another 35 years with people living in fear and shame. Cancer-sufferers are called ‘fighters’ and those with HIV should be no different. We’ve come so far and we shouldn’t let this hold us back.

Let’s leave HIV Stigma in the 80s along with the bad haircuts and pale blue shell suits.