Every year on Dec. 1, the entire world bows its head in respectful remembrance of those we’ve lost to HIV/AIDS—but also to raise our voices in determination to beat the epidemic. But how did this annual event come to be?
It began in 1987, during the darkest years of the crisis. This was long before the HAART therapy that keeps millions alive today, and at the time a diagnosis could mean that the end of life was very close. Two public information officers came up with the idea of World AIDS Day: James Bunn and Thomas Netter were colleagues working at the Global Programme on AIDS at the World Health Organization in Geneva. The date was selected because it was between the U.S. election and Christmas, during a time when the media was likely to pay attention.
Initially, the event was used to highlight the children who were living with AIDS around the world. This drew some ire, since the disease was particularly devastating to the LGBTQ community. But at the time, the focus on children helped make the awareness and activism more palatable to potential allies. Once they were on board with the cause, they could grow more comfortable with the idea that queer adults were affected as well.
The focus on children also helped dispel some of the stigma around the disease, reminding people that it wasn’t simply a virus that had been sent, in the words of Pat Buchanan, to punish gays.
By 1990, the theme had broadened to “Women and AIDS,” and from there into “AIDS: Men Make a Difference” in 2000. Subsequent years specifically addressed “Stigma and Discrimination,” still an ongoing problem, with organizations like AIDS Healthcare Foundation deploying sex-negative ads to their clients.
More recently, the focus has shifted to “Universal Access and Human Rights” and “On the Fast Track to End AIDS,” a nod to the rapidly evolving prophylaxis and vaccine trials around the world.
The theme in 2016 was “HIV Stigma: Not Retro, Just Wrong.” In recent months, AHF has employed sex-stigma to stand in opposition to medication like PrEP that is shown to almost completely prevent the spread of HIV.
Since 1996, management of World AIDS Day has been tackled by the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS. The group has branched out with massive international campaigns that span the entire year, though focus remains on December. The last three popes have spoken out each year on Dec. 1, offering words of comfort to patients and doctors (but while still opposing measures like condoms that would reduce the spread of the disease).
For the entire duration of the Obama presidency, the White House has hung a giant red ribbon on the North Portico to signal support. It remains to be seen whether the tradition will continue under the Trump administration—of course, it was under a previous Republican president, Ronald Reagan, that the epidemic went unaddressed, killing thousands through GOP inaction.
In the nearly 30 years that the planet has observed World AIDS Day, we’ve made many strides, but there’s still a lot more work to be done, most notably in developing nations. Here’s hoping politics and religion don’t collude to hold us back as they have in the past.