• Marchers on the New York City Gay Pride march in 1983, as the AIDS epidemic hit frightening levels. (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
A newspaper headline in 1981 heralded the dawn of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
Nathan Jolly

15 Mar 2017 - 10:39 AM  UPDATED 15 Mar 2017 - 11:03 AM

"Rare cancer seen in 41 homosexuals”, screamed the New York Times headline.

In retrospect, this July 1981 headline was the first public mention of AIDS, with that name yet to come into use. The reported outbreak was of Kaposi's Sarcoma, a rare cancer developing in men younger than the norm, with some showing unusually weakened immune systems.

As is often the case during many developing outbreaks, researchers made the wrong call from incomplete knowledge. "The medical investigators say some indirect evidence actually points away from contagion as a cause," reported the paper, quoting a doctor as saying there was no apparent danger to non-homosexuals.

Within a few years, it became clear that AIDS was much more than a cluster outbreak.

Patient Zero

Of course, many rushed to find a bogeyman to blame.

Enter "Patient Zero" - Gaétan Dugas - a flight attendant who, as the legend goes, caught HIV in either Africa or Haiti, brought it back to the States, and supposedly spread it to hundreds of men across America, even after becoming aware that he was infectious.

Dugas died in 1984, and his nickname became widespread after its appearance in the 1987 book And the Band Played On, written by gay journalist Randy Shilts about the early days of the epidemic.

We now know that AIDS first appeared in New York City as early as 1971. But the misconception about Dugas won't go away, despite the revelation that Dugan was called Patient O - for "Outside California" in a study - and not Patient 0.

But David R. Fair, who ran Philadelphia’s AIDS office during the '80s, told the STAR that the tabloid nature of this coverage actually served to help spread AIDS awareness.

He said, “The first thing I did was buy 40 copies of [And the Band Played On] and give it to the mayor and department heads. It’s really hard to remember how little attention was being paid to AIDS outside New York and San Francisco. The book is what led to the creation of a national AIDS activism movement.”

Spreading the word

As AIDS became a pandemic, and information continued to be muddied by political and personal agendas, the stories of those such as Ryan White become incredibly important.

White, a haemophiliac, contracted HIV as a 13 year-old from a blood transfusion and was diagnosed with AIDS in 1984. After the diagnosis, his Indianapolis high school banned him from attending, leading to a legal battle and the support of high-profile people such as Michael Jackson and Elton John.

Appearances on Phil Donahue's talk show and a telemovie about White (watched by over 15 million Americans), helped push the issue into living rooms across America. The blonde-haired, blue-eyed teenager helped change the attitudes of many who still perceived AIDS as a problem restricted to homosexuals or intravenous drug users. White died in 1990, inspiring the Ryan White CARE Act - the largest federally funded support program for those living with HIV and AIDS. 

The issue was finally emerging from the shadows, with an urgent push to broaden sex education classes in schools in 1986 led by US Surgeon General C. Everett Koop.

A 1986 TIME cover story quoted Koop: "There is now no doubt that we need sex education in schools and that it must include information on heterosexual and homosexual relationships." Because of the "deadly health hazard," Koop stressed the lessons should be "as explicit as necessary to get the message across. You can't talk of the dangers of snake poisoning and not mention snakes."

The story also cited widespread support: 86 per cent polled felt sex education should be updated to include AIDS, while 95 per cent believed 12-year-olds should be taught about the dangers of AIDS.

TIME claims its cover story directly led to "formerly off-limits subjects like anal sex" being introduced to classrooms. But as time went on, sex-ed classes have been taught in fewer and fewer school and in 2010, 26 per cent of new US HIV infections were in those aged 13 to 24.

Unfortunately, in many pockets of the world, deadly misinformation around AIDS continues to linger. The World Health Organisation estimates that AIDS has killed 35 million people.

The Eighties examines the AIDS epidemic tonight on SBS from 8:30pm. Previous episodes are streaming now on SBS On Demand:

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