AIDS

Essay

"The Aids epidemic has rolled back a big rotting log and revealed all the squirming life underneath it, since it involves, all at once, the main themes of our existence: sex, death, power, money, love, hate, disease and panic." Edmund White, 'States of Desire: Travels in Gay America' (afterword to 1986 edition).

Twenty-five years since AIDS was first recognised, it is difficult to recapture the global sense of panic, fear and prejudice precipitated by the lack of knowledge, early misconceptions about transmission, and the absence of effective treatments. Material in the Wellcome Library's collection of ephemera and AIDS prevention posters graphically convey the anxiety and uncertainty surrounding the disease and the ways that local, national, and international organisations and governments attempted to manage it.

The library contains a wide selection of AIDS related ephemera spanning the last twenty-five years. It includes hundreds of leaflets containing information produced by national and local government, international bodies including the World Health Organisation, and the plethora of charities that sprang up in the wake of AIDS, including the Terence Higgins Trust and the National AIDS trust. They advise on safe sex practices, AIDS and drug use, how and where to get HIV tested, what to do in the event of a positive result, the legal status of HIV-infected people, AIDS education initiatives and counselling services. One of the earliest and starkest items is an exemplar of the first leaflet sent out nation-wide by the British government along with the envelope in which it was posted, bearing the following disquieting message:

"This leaflet is being sent to every household in the country to inform everyone about AIDS, in order to help stop the spread of this serious disease. It deals with matters of health and sex that may be disturbing. Please make sure that everyone in your household who may need this information sees this leaflet."

The leaflet itself bore the now well-known slogan, "AIDS: Don't die of ignorance", on which the letters "AIDS" were chiselled. The information it contained was issued in the most chilling terms:

"Any man or woman can get the AIDS virus depending on their behaviour. It is not just a homosexual disease. There is no cure. And it kills."

Death, fear, ostracism - many of the earlier pieces of ephemera tended to focus on the bleakest aspects of the disease in order to change behaviour. Many also counselled extreme sexual caution, and promoted faithful and monogamous relationships as the safest way to avoid contracting the disease. However, other pieces demonstrate quite different approaches to convey their messages.

Some material used humorous and sexually graphic images and language in order to leaven the gravity of the message, and to make the practice of safe sex both cool and sexy. Personified penises and condoms are a common comic conceit, and many items employ an erotic and highly explicit visual and linguistic register.

The richest source of AIDS material is to be found in the Paintings, Prints and Drawings Collection, which boasts an exceptional range of AIDS prevention posters. These include a single collection that is one of the four largest such collections in the world. Acquired in 1999, it consists of nearly 3000 posters from 92 different countries.

These posters provide invaluable insight into the diversity of approaches to AIDS prevention, depending on both the time of production and their geographical origin. The design, language, and imagery vary in accordance with the state's secular or religious affiliation, the cultural specificities of each country, and the target audiences.

The Eastern European and African posters rely heavily on moral messages about the sin of promiscuity and encourage its opposite virtues - abstention or monogamy and faithfulness. A Russian poster from 1990 depicts a harpy, with bright blonde hair and dark red nails and wings made of syringes instead of feathers, conveying the message that prostitutes and drugs are two causes of the spread of AIDS. Another Russian poster uses the iconography of Adam and Eve standing by the Tree of Knowledge (also used in several East European posters), who are warned by the serpent to practice marital fidelity. The early Eastern European posters tend to have a more sinister visual language, often using skulls and skeletons to emphasise the incurable nature of the disease

A survey of the Ugandan posters provide insight into the particular concerns of the country in relation to the epidemic. In one, a truck driver is being assailed by two prostitutes. The message reads "Thank God I said no to AIDS. I am driving straight home to my wife". Another has a drawing of a man brandishing money in one hand and pulling a schoolgirl with the other, while two of her friends pull her away from him. The message reads "Support your friends. Help them to remain AIDS free."

Further exploration

The papers of Dominik Wujastyk, relating to his contribution as an expert witness in a case brought by the General Medical Council against two Harley Street doctors who provided treatment by 'Maharishi Ayurveda' therapy to AIDS patients, and who were subsequently found guilty of gross professional misconduct.

Correspondence between the Family Planning Association and the Department of Health and Social Security, regarding AIDS awareness and the establishment of an umbrella organisation for AIDS work in the voluntary sector (which became the National AIDS Trust).

Related content

Article

Devastating diseases that have affected human populations throughout the ages.

Video

This film is one of the earliest surviving film records of bacteriological research.

Image gallery

Devastating diseases that have affected human populations throughout the ages.

Article

How should individuals and governments respond to the possibility of new outbreaks?

Article

If there is not enough medicine to go round, who should be first in line - and who should decide?