The disease that would eventually become known as AIDS began to surface in 1981, killing mostly gay men in large urban areas. For the time being, it was known in medical circles as GRID or Gay Related Immune Deficiency.
AIDS initially produced many social prejudices about homosexuality and intravenous drug use, and much education was needed before the community would stop seeing AIDS as simply a ‘gay disease’.
Statistics would eventually show that AIDS was not confined to homosexual men (especially in the developing world where many heterosexual people contracted the disease) and that it could be contracted through the exchange of blood or semen in a variety of ways, not merely anal sex between men.
In October 1983 World Health Organization officials stated “there is no risk of contracting AIDS as a result of casual or social contact with AIDS patients”.
In April 1984, US and French scientists discovered the micro-organisms that caused AIDS. Margaret Heckler, the US Health and Human Services Secretary, announced the discovery.
The virus was discovered at the Pasteur Institute in France and at the US National Cancer Institute and the disease was declared a world epidemic in 1985.
Of the 11 million cases of sexually transmitted diseases reported in America in 1986, only 15,000 were AIDS, while there were 500,000 cases of herpes and 1,800,000 cases of gonorrhoea.
However, since AIDS was 100% fatal, it was the chief concern, and by 1987, 50,000 Americans had contracted it, with 73% of these being homosexual or bisexual men, 17% intravenous drug users, and 4% heterosexuals. Only 6.6% of AIDS victims were female.
Most people are equipped to resist infections – their immune system fights infection. But AIDS damages the immune system, leaving sufferers unable to resist infectious diseases such as pneumonia and tuberculosis.
Homosexuals, initially ostracised because of the public hysteria, found themselves politically stronger because of the media attention and the attempts of governments to once again regulate sex lives and choices. The gay lifestyle came out of the shadows and has been legalised in many countries.
In the developed world, the outbreak of AIDS took the glow off the sexual revolution.
In April 1989 a controversial AIDS awareness campaign was launched on television in Australia.
The TV spots featured the ‘Grim Reaper’ bowling people down like ten pins in an alley. The advert had a high impact in Australia and helped spread the HIV/AIDS prevention message.
While no cure has been found, effective prevention techniques and, more recently, triple-therapy for HIV carriers have pushed down the casualty count in richer countries. But in poorer countries the toll has kept mounting.