World AIDS Day: awareness of the overlooked pandemic

Freeman Brothers Funeral Directors was first established in 1855. Today, the company is still based in its original office in Horsham, as well as having added a further three branches across the county – in Billingshurst, Crawley and Hurstpierpoint. As we approach two years since COVID-19 was officially categorised by the WHO as a pandemic, […]

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Freeman Brothers Funeral Directors was first established in 1855. Today, the company is still based in its original office in Horsham, as well as having added a further three branches across the county – in Billingshurst, Crawley and Hurstpierpoint. As we approach two years since COVID-19 was officially categorised by the WHO as a pandemic, Becky blogs on the history of World AIDS Day, which is marked annually on 1st December…

I’ve survived two pandemics during my lifetime so far: COVID-19, and AIDS. This may seem to be a dramatic statement, as the diseases are so different, but it’s an overlooked truth that HIV/AIDS is considered to be a pandemic. And, as we step further away from the Western world’s darkest days of the HIV/AIDS crisis, it’s easy to forget the gravity of the situation.

World AIDS Day was founded in 1988, and is the first global health day. This in itself is something worth celebrating, as it has undoubtedly inspired other awareness days – whilst some people think that there are now far too many, I disagree, and believe that it’s important to highlight individual issues in this manner. Awareness helps us to empathise better with other people, and also means that we can recognise signs and symptoms of a variety of conditions in ourselves and others. I don’t doubt that, due to increased awareness of all kinds of diseases and issues, there is a higher level of both prevention and recovery.

I grew up at a time when the narrative around HIV/AIDS was finally starting to very slowly shift. I’m grateful that I don’t remember the early days, and the height of stigma and propaganda which unfairly represented HIV as ‘the Gay plague’, though I did learn about this element as a teenager. The confusion created by media and even health officials during the emergence of HIV in the 1980s undoubtedly led to a greater level of transmissions, a narrative which is now widely covered in many popular culture pieces, such as films like ‘The Dallas Buyers Club’ and TV shows like ‘It’s A Sin’.

Whilst some of us are able to casually forget that HIV/AIDS remains a pandemic, others never will. As my friendships and experience broadened early in adulthood, I paid close attention to the stories told by those who are a little older than me. The memories of those generations of the LGBTQ+ community who survive today are incredibly important, when they are willing to share them. The experience of someone falling silent, overcome by the memories of many funerals attended, friends who just disappeared and died alone, or spaces they were excluded from due to mistakenly being thought of as unsafe, can be similar to attempting to discuss World War II with those who lived through it, or active duty with a former soldier. The experiences themselves are distinct, and all are important, but what is familiar is the overpowering nature of their feelings – so many feel deeply saddened, and betrayed. Many lives ended far too soon.

The lessons they learned were hard and often lonely, but we can benefit from them today and in the future, by remembering that stigmatisation only serves to worsen situations, and can kill people. We must also remember that sharing correct and up to date information with those impacted is key, and those who are ill and those around them require support. Something that both HIV/AIDS and COVID have highlighted is that correlation does not equal causation – although many believe that certain demographics are more vulnerable to both illnesses, the reality is very different, and being aware that all of us are at risk, but can do things to protect ourselves and others is critical.

Although the COVID-19 pandemic remains ongoing, and suspicion among some communities is high, it seems that it will never be socially unacceptable to discuss it, unlike HIV/AIDS. One of the significant drawbacks and something which prevented early conversations taking place, is undoubtedly due to the fact that this is a sexually transmitted disease, whereas COVID is a respiratory illness which is airborne.

As an additional element of misfortune, the 1980s were a time when the Reagan administration had issued the ‘war on drugs’; in many parts of the world, it was still highly unacceptable to be outwardly LGBTQ+, and the Thatcher government initiated Section 28 – the legislation preventing the discussion of anything other than heterosexuality by teachers and other school staff. All of this created a perfect storm at the outset of the HIV/AIDS pandemic, and the damage done by these policies remains ongoing (Section 28 was only repealed in 2003 and, whilst this is now a mighty 18 years ago, we must remember that the children of today are impacted by the education their parents received as much as they are by the current curriculum).

When World AIDS Day was first considered, the timing was chosen by an interesting means. Various factors were considered, from holiday periods to the US election schedule, and with those things in mind – the US’s Thanksgiving holiday, plus Christmas being the holidays factored in – 1st December was chosen. Some of this logic was due to one of the co-creators being James W. Bunn, who was a public information officer at the World Health Organisation (WHO) in Geneva. His previous experience was in broadcasting, and he believed that avoiding other large events would maximise impact, but that this time of year would also therefore generate a lot of attention.

Having been the first global health day, World AIDS Day remains one of only 11 health days officially supported by the WHO. As I mentioned previously, many people think that awareness days are too common, and the fact that the WHO continues to support so few speaks to the gravity of these particular issues.

World AIDS Day has always had a theme and, in the early years, the focus of these was on children and young people impacted by HIV/AIDS. This concept did receive some criticism, and it could indeed be viewed as an attempt to cover up the true demographics impacted, however it did mean that attention was still garnered. It was a good choice by the organisers, as with the focus on children, many were more comfortable discussing the topic.

There has been a campaign running since 2016 to change the name of World AIDS Day to World HIV Day, and I can see the relevance of this. With advances in both prevention and treatment, and the fact that many people living with HIV are now able to have their viral load be undetectable (meaning that they cannot transmit the virus – this is achieved by careful management of medication), there are fewer progressions from HIV to AIDS, and the evolving status of this pandemic would be honoured.

In 2021, the UK’s World AIDS Day campaign is focused on allyship, with the ‘Rock the Ribbon’ strapline. This fits with the National AIDS Trust’s aims to support those living with the virus by ensuring that their rights are defended, and fighting discrimination, as well as ending the stigma around it and reducing transmission. To do this, members of the public are encouraged to wear a red ribbon and share via social media what the purpose of this is and continue to raise awareness of the pandemic that many are currently forgetting.

You can find out more about World AIDS Day via the National AIDS Trust website.

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Written by Becky Hughes

Community Co-Ordinator

December 1, 2021

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