Thursday, December 01, 2011

It's still here

One Saturday, 24 years ago, a magazine editor, in his wisdom, dispatched me to the English market town of Hereford to ask locals about their sexual habits.

It was an assignment fraught with danger. Firstly, Hereford is the world-famous home of the SAS, Britain's elite special forces. They are not know for their openness to strangers asking questions. About anything.

Secondly, the objective of my mission was to test national attitudes towards HIV/AIDS which, in 1987, was seen almost exclusively as a "gay plague", helped no end by unenlightened newspaper headlines along those lines.

Dodging threatening looks and accusations ("You some sort of pervert?") and the inevitable and progressively unfunny 'jokes' ("Practice safe sex? Absolutely - last time we 'ad it off in the car we almost crashed." Ho and, can I add, ho), I waded through the crowded provincial town centre. This particular 'vox pop' required nerves of steel and, I discovered relatively early on, a decent pair of trainers.

At the beginning of 1987 the government had delivered a leaflet to every home in Britain inscribed "AIDS: Don't die of ignorance". It was a slogan born of the age of Katherine Hamnett's famous white FRANKIE SAYS... T-shirts, and formed part of a £20 million advertising campaign which also included two iconic TV commercials, in which a large iceberg in one, and a tombstone in the other, loomed into view to John Hurt's voiceover cheerily warning of "a deadly disease and there is no known cure".

Amid the inevitable hostility towards my questions, my afternoon in Hereford produced some interesting results. Firstly, it was clear that a large number of people under the age of 20 hadn't seen the government's leaflet at all. Of those that had, less than half had found it useful, only a similar number said that the advertising campaign had made them change their sexual habits, and even a sixth said they hadn't even thought about it.

There was plenty of indifference and, indeed, ignorance in Hereford that afternoon, reactions that replicated themselves across the country as the same investigation was carried out by my colleagues in London, Manchester, Newcastle, Leeds and other cities and towns. Things weren't helped by the positively Victorian thundering of James Anderton, who was then-Chief Constable of Greater Manchester Police, who talked about AIDS victims "...swirling in a human cesspit of their own making".

Today is World Aids Day. It is also 30 years since scientists at the United States' Centers for Disease Control first flagged up a new virus with an alarmingly high mortality rate. Although human infection by the HIV virus has since been traced back to the early 20th Century, and the origins of its development into a pandemic even now unclear, 'full blown' AIDS became the sort of bogeyman that communism and 'Reds under the bed' had been in the 1950s and 60s. Much of this had to do with the gay stigma attached to the disease. As I found in Hereford, few people understood, or were prepared to understand that HIV contamination could affect both heterosexuals as well as needle-sharing drug users.

As deaths soared - and the deaths of figures from the arts and entertainment world like Rock Hudson, previously regarded as the all-American hearthrob whose homosexuality had been kept an unusual secret in pre-Internet Hollywood - public opinion continued to focus on issues of morality surrounding the disease.

In 1985 the story of Indiana schoolboy Ryan White caught media and celebrity attention. White was a hemophiliac who, in 1984, was diagnosed with pneumonia and was subsequently discovered to have AIDS. When it was learned that he'd contracted the HIV virus from a contaminated batch of transfused blood, White and his family entered a protracted dispute with the local education authority who wanted to keep him away from school. White's case drew celebrity attention, with everyone from Elton John and Michael Jackson to Ronald and Nancy Reagan supporting his cause and, in the process, doing much to destigmatise AIDS and the real ignorance that existed around it.

When AIDS first reached the public consciousness there was much talk of it becoming a pandemic that could even impact world population numbers. Today its global death toll stands at 22 million with HIV infections at 60 million. Effective treatments have turned it into a manageable, chronic condition which has kept it off the front pages. While people still die from the disease, the fact that those dying aren't actors and rock stars has stopped it becoming news. There is also the complacent belief that HIV/AIDS is on the decline. Certainly in places like south-east Asia there has been a marked decline in new infections and deaths thanks to preventative education and treatment programmes in countries like India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.

In truth, however, HIV/AIDS is anything but disappeared. It is estimated that 33.4 million people live today with the HIV virus, and two-thirds of those are in sub-Saharan Africa. In Zimbabwe, Botswana and Swaziland around a third of the population lives with the virus. There have been significant signs of progress in Africa, but it is still a basket case by world standards.

Not that things are necessarily rosy in the developed world. New HIV infections in the UK, for example, have continued to grow over the last ten years as complacency towards practicing safe sex has crept in. In the United States HIV infection rates amongst African-Americans overtook those within the gay community in 2000, and today the disease continues to ravage parts of the country's southern states, where mortality rates are markedly the highest and the majority of people who have HIV or AIDS are black. Significantly, six of the ten American states with the highest number of women with AIDS are in the South.

Sexual health is still a topic of extreme sensitivity, and the stigma attached to AIDS in every part of the world - and every community where it resides - is still the biggest barrier to achieving a World Health Organisation target of zero new HIV infections and deaths from AIDS by 2015.

The second biggest barrier is, inevitably, money. Scientists claim they are achingly close to developing an HIV/AIDS vaccine, but cuts in funding are threatening to arrest that development. Still, World Aids Day today - and on December 1 for the next four years - will focus on the zero infections target.

The blight of AIDS has, in recent years at least, been blighted itself by a combination of indifference, ignorance and cynicsm. Being straight, I've been part of a community that regarded it as someone else's risk; being European, it was someone else's problem; not being a drug user, someone else's stupidity. Other causes have come along to claim attention for our charity and our lifestyles. But 24 or 25 years ago, while we were still more worried about the Russians turning our capital cities into irradiated wasteland, a new disease came along to wipe the post-Free Love Generation smiles off our faces. And it's still with us today.

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