December 1st marks World AIDS Day – a day in which we remember the victims of the AIDS crisis and show our support for those living with HIV today. Solidarity for this cause is usually shown by wearing a red ribbon.

For further information about HIV/AIDS, visit the NHS website.

The World AIDS Day (01.12.2020) livestream from the Cardiff University LGBT+ Association

Timeline of the AIDS crisis

An estimated 32.7 million people have died from AIDS-related illnesses since the start of the pandemic – but how did it start? How did we get to where we are today?

  • 1981 – Whilst HIV/AIDS doesn’t randomly appear in 1981 and has its roots much earlier in Africa, 1981 marks the beginning of the pandemic unfolding in America, with recorded cases beginning. In June, the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) begins reporting about unexplained cases of young gay men contracting rare lung diseases and an aggressive cancer called Kaposi’s sarcoma. At this point, the cases are mostly in San Francisco and New York City. In July, the New York Times first reports on the phenomena, with the headline “Rare Cancer Seen in 41 Homosexuals.” The term “gay cancer” enters the public lexicon. By the year’s end, there is a cumulative total of 270 reported cases of severe immune deficiency among gay men in the U.S., and 121 of those individuals have died. Some researchers begin calling the condition GRID (Gay-Related Immune Deficiency). This terminology influences both the medical profession and the public to perceive the epidemic as limited to gay men, with serious long-term consequences for women, heterosexual men, haemophiliacs, people who inject drugs, and children. In December, the first known British victim dies of an AIDS-related illness in Brompton Hospital.
  • 1982 – In January, the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC) is formed, which is the first community-based AIDS service provider to be formed in the U.S. In June, a gay activist group in San Francisco publishes the first pamphlet on “safer sex” and distributes 16,000 copies at the International Lesbian & Gay Freedom Day Parade. In July, Terrence Higgins dies of an AIDS-related illness in the UK, leading to the formation of the Terrence Higgins Trust – the leading HIV/AIDS charity in the UK to this day. Also in July, the CDC publishes the first report of immunosuppression in patients with haemophilia who have no other known risk factors for AIDS. In September, the CDC uses the term Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) for the first time. In December, it is noted that the disease can be transmitted by blood transfusion when a 20-month-old infant develops unexplained cellular immunodeficiency which is traced back to a blood donor.
  • 1983 – In January, the CDC reports the first cases of AIDS in female sexual partners of males with AIDS. In May, The U.S. Congress passes the first bill that includes funding specifically targeted for AIDS research and treatment. Meanwhile, in France, Dr. Françoise Barré-Sinoussi and her colleagues at the Pasteur Institute report the discovery of a retrovirus they call Lymphadenopathy Associated Virus (LAV) that could be the cause of AIDS. In September, the CDC identifies all major routes of HIV transmission, ruling out transmission by casual contact, food, water, air, or environmental surfaces. 1983 is also a year that raised the public profiles of many gay people who were speaking out about AIDS and trying to get people angry at the lack of government funding. One of these people is Larry Kramer, who’s a founding member of the GMHC and a prolific writer.
  • 1985 – In July, the actor Rock Hudson announces he has AIDS —the first major U.S. public figure to do so. His acknowledgment marks a turning point in public perceptions about the epidemic. In September, President Reagan mentions AIDS publicly for the first time, four years after the start of the pandemic. Many believe that governmental inaction during the early years of the pandemic amounted to a form of social cleansing – and it was only when affluent, white, and heterosexual people were contracting the disease did they start to pay attention. In October, Hudson dies. By the year’s end, at least one HIV case has been reported from each region of the world.
  • 1986 – At the beginning of this year, the CDC reports that more people were diagnosed with AIDS in 1985 than in all earlier years combined. This shows an 89% increase in the U.S. from 1984. In October, casual transmission is finally ruled out, and efforts are focused to reduce transmissions through sex and needle-sharing. The CDC reports that African-American and Latino children make up 90% of perinatally acquired AIDS cases, evidence that the pandemic is disproportionally affecting these communities.
  • 1987 – In February, activist Cleve Jones creates the first panel of the AIDS memorial quilt. In March, the first antiretroviral drug (AZT) is approved for treatment, but is not widely available. In the UK in April, Princess Diana makes international headlines by shaking the hands of people with AIDS, massively reducing stigma. She also opens a new ward in Middlesex Hospital for the treatment of HIV patients. Meanwhile, the UK government launched a major public information campaign, the controversial “AIDS: Don’t Die of Ignorance”, which included leaflets through the door of every household and dramatic TV adverts with ‘AIDS’ chiselled into a gravestone. This scaremongering tactic increased homophobia dramatically in such a way that effects are still felt to this day. In May, President Reagan establishes an overdue Presidential Commission on HIV. On October 11th, the AIDS Memorial Quilt goes on display for the first time on the National Mall in Washington, DC. The display features 1,920 panels and draws half a million visitors. In the UK, the first needle exchange is opened in Dundee.
  • 1988 – In October, activist group ACT UP protests at FDA headquarters over the slow pace of the federal drug-approval process. Eight days later, FDA announces new regulations to speed up drug approvals. On December 1st, World AIDS Day is observed for the first time.
  • 1989 – In August, the CDC reports the number of cases in the US has reached 100,000.
  • 1990 – In May, ACT UP protests at the National Institutes of Health. The group demands more HIV treatments and the expansion of clinical trials to include more women and people of colour.
  • 1991 – The Visual AIDS Artists Caucus launches the Red Ribbon Project to create a visual symbol to demonstrate compassion for people living with AIDS and their caregivers. The red ribbon is still the international symbol of AIDS awareness. On November 24th, lead singer of Queen, Freddie Mercury dies of an AIDS-related illness, just one day after he announces he has the disease. EastEnders character Mark Fowler is diagnosed as HIV positive on the show, a storyline that results in a peak of requests for HIV testing.
  • 1992 – In May, the FDA licences a rapid HIV diagnostic test kit which can give a result from a blood test in 10 minutes.
  • 1994 – AIDS becomes the leading cause of death for all Americans aged 25-44.
  • 1995 – The first protease inhibitor is approved for treatment in America, ushering in a new era of highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART). By 1996 in the UK, this treatment has become the standard, dramatically reducing the death rate. In December, President Clinton holds the first White House conference on HIV/AIDS, almost 15 years after the epidemic began.
  • 1996 – Due in part to widespread education and testing programmes, the number of new AIDS cases diagnosed in the U.S. declines for the first time since the beginning of the epidemic. This brings in a new era of optimism, along with the continued successes of HAART. In October, the AIDS Memorial Quilt is displayed in its entirety for the last time. It covers the entire National Mall in Washington, DC.
  • 1998 – The CDC reports that African-Americans account for 49% of U.S. AIDS-related deaths. AIDS-related mortality for African-Americans is almost 10 times that of Whites and three times that of Hispanics. To bring those numbers down, President Clinton announces new initiatives aimed at reducing the impact of HIV/AIDS in BAME communities.
  • 1999 – The World Health Organization (WHO) announces that HIV/AIDS has become the fourth biggest killer worldwide and the number one killer in Africa. WHO estimates that 33 million people are living with HIV worldwide, and that 14 million have died of AIDS. In February in America, the first National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day is observed, which aims to raise awareness about prevention, treatment, and care in communities of colour.
  • 2002 - In July, UNAIDS (the Joint United Nations Programme on AIDS) reports that HIV/AIDS is now by far the leading cause of death in sub-Saharan Africa, and the fourth biggest global killer. Average life expectancy in sub-Saharan Africa falls from 62 years to 47 years as a result of AIDS.
  • 2007 – The CDC reports over 565,000 people have died of AIDS in the U.S. since 1981.
  • 2008 – While in many developed countries AIDS is now considered a chronic condition rather than a fatal disease, it is estimated that 33m people are living with HIV/AIDS by this point, many of them in underdeveloped countries.
  • 2009 – In the U.S., the FDA approves the 100th antiretroviral drug. In October of 2009, President Obama announces he will lift the HIV travel and immigration ban that many said was discriminatory – this will be lifted officially in 2010.
  • 2010 – In the UK, the passing of the Equality Act 2010 lists people living with HIV as disabled, legally protecting them from discrimination. In America, the passing of the Affordable Care Act by the Obama Administration increases legal protections for people with chronic illnesses such as HIV who may otherwise struggle to access and afford healthcare. The Obama Administration also releases the first National HIV/AIDS Strategy for the United States.
  • 2012 – In July, the FDA approves the first instance of pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), which at-risk people can take to reduce their risk of getting the virus through sexual activity.
  • 2013 – Approximately 35.3 million people around the world are now living with HIV, including more than 1.2 million Americans. UNAIDS also announces that new HIV infections have dropped more than 50% in 25 low- and middle-income countries, and the number of people getting antiretroviral treatment has increased 63% in the past two years.
  • 2015 – In the UK in April, the first home testing kits become available, after being legalised the previous year. In June, the World Health Organization certifies that Cuba is the first nation to eliminate mother-to-child transmission of both HIV and syphilis.
  • 2016 – Various studies on transmission are released, with the PARTNER Study showing that a person living with HIV who is on treatment and whose virus is undetectable cannot pass the virus on to anyone else. The 'U=U' (Undetectable = Untransmissible) campaign and Terrence Higgins Trust's 'Can't Pass It On' campaigns follow shortly after.
  • 2017 – In the UK, the NHS announces trial of PrEP for 10,000 people taking place over three years.
  • 2018 – December 1st marks 30 years of the observance of World AIDS Day.
  • 2019 – PrEP becomes freely available in England for those participating in clinical trials.
  • 2020 – In Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland, PrEP becomes freely available on the NHS for anyone who needs it.

Misconceptions and Myth-busting:

This information comes from a BBC article and
  1. AIDS directly kills people. This is false. People die from opportunistic infections resultant of AIDS, a chronic condition caused by the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) which effectively destroys the immune system.
  2. You can get AIDS from kissing people. This is false. The virus cannot be transferred through saliva, air particles, sweat, or tears. It is transmitted through bodily fluids such as semen, vaginal fluid, breast milk, and blood. It can also be transmitted prenatally. 
  3. AIDS is a gay disease. This is also false. Whilst it is prevalent in gay communities, and it was first discovered among young gay men, it can be contracted by anyone – primarily through sexual contact with someone who is HIV+.
  4. You can’t get AIDS from oral. You actually can become infected with HIV through oral sex – both giving and receiving. Any sexual activity which involves semen or vaginal fluid can transmit the disease.
  5. A diagnosis of HIV is a death sentence. Thankfully, this is no longer true. In fact, if HIV is managed properly with antiretroviral drugs, it may never progress into AIDS at all, and becomes a chronic but manageable condition. If caught early and treated properly, a diagnosis of HIV could have no effect on your life expectancy.


Further Reading:

  • Reports from the Holocaust: the Story of an AIDS Activist by Larry Kramer (available in the library). I especially recommend the essays from this book ‘1112 and Counting’, and ‘Reports from a Holocaust’
  • When We Rise: My Life in the Movement by Cleve Jones - an autobiography from the man who started the AIDS memorial quilt
  • Melancholia and Moralism: Essays on AIDS and Queer Politics by Douglas Crimp (also available in the library). Especially recommended are the essays ‘How to Have Promiscuity in an Epidemic’, ‘Mourning and Militancy’, ‘Right on, Girlfriend!’, and ‘The Spectacle of Mourning’
  • Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt (1989), a documentary about the AIDS memorial quilt
  • The Normal Heart by Larry Kramer – a play fictionalising the early years of the pandemic and Kramer’s role in it.


Frisky Wales


Student Advice Sexual Health


Terrence Higgins Trust


LGBT+ Association