World Aids Day: the disease that changed the world

Published: November 29, 2011

Today, seventy million people are infected with a virus that 30 years ago no one had heard of. To mark World Aids Day on December 1, Michael Hanlon considers the impact of HIV/Aids on science and society.

In June 1981, the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, Georgia issued a landmark report about five young gay men in Los Angeles who had died from a mysterious condition that had destroyed their immune systems.

Within two years, Aids (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) was changing the world. Any disease with the capacity to infect and kill millions will have a profound effect, but this modern ‘plague’ was different. It was an odd, horrible disease; a collection of separate illnesses. Chest infections, typically Pneumocystis pneumonia (PCP) were a common indicator, as was Kaposi’s Sarcoma, a rare form of skin cancer. But most sufferers were swamped by a tide of common, usually trivial bacterial, viral and fungal infections that overwhelmed their weakened bodies.

The advent of Aids would forever alter the way we think and talk about sex and sexuality; it would bring previously taboo subjects out into the open. It involved issues of race and celebrity, wealth and poverty, highlighting as never before the inequalities between the rich West and the developing world.

This was a disease that was co-opted by gay-rights activists, liberals and bigots alike. Who can forget the infamous comment by James Anderton, then Chief Constable of Manchester Police that gay men were ‘swirling in a cesspool of their own making’? Or celebrities such as Elizabeth Taylor, Elton John and Madonna who championed the cause and the victims?

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