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The tragedy of the AIDS epidemic brought about an outpouring of items, intended to educate the public about the disease and its consequences.

Starting in the early 1980s—AIDS was first identified in 1981—the initial response to the disease generated ephemeral public health materials, such as buttons, posters, cards, comic books, and even lunch boxes. Since AIDS was both incurable and invariably fatal, these messages of prevention were the only effective steps that public health officials could take.

Produced by government health departments as well as private organizations, these ephemeral objects became an important medium for messages of awareness, prevention, compassion, and responsibility. Buttons and posters provided information on disease symptoms and safe practices, while comic books spun tales of the consequences of risky sex and needle sharing.

To convey the point, artists played with stereotypes of the most affected subcultures, gay men in particular. Materials appealed to pride and solidarity within the gay community, as well as to traditional civic virtues, all in an effort to slow the disease's spread. Some materials were playful and humorous; many were risqué.

In 1996, a "cocktail" of anti-retroviral drugs was approved for the treatment of AIDS. While this treatment did not cure the disease, it slowed and often stopped its progress. With the introduction of a treatment, pressure on the public health community declined. By the year 2000, AIDS public health campaigns had fallen off dramatically in Western Europe, North America, and Australasia, and so did the outpouring of AIDS ephemera.

This on-line exhibit is based on "AIDS Ephemera," an exhibit at the National Library of Medicine, which opened November 25, 2002. The materials are drawn from the NLM's Prints & Photographs collection. Many donors contributed these materials—we wish to take special note of the contributions of William H. Helfand, who, as a consultant to the Library, organized and carried out a project to secure AIDS posters from the many agencies and organizations that were producing and distributing them in the 1980s and '90s. As a result, the National Library of Medicine has a remarkable collection of such posters, as well as other of Mr. Helfand's donations on the topic.


Further information about many of these materials is available through the Library’s image database, Images from the History of Medicine. Readers are also directed to the on-line exhibit "Visual Culture and Health Posters," which has a section on HIV/AIDS; and to the on-line exhibit "Here Today, Here Tomorrow: Varieties of Medical Ephemera," also with a section on AIDS.


Credit for the original exhibit is owed to Jan Lazarus, Dr. Paul Theerman, and Belle Waring of the Images and Archives Section of the History of Medicine Division; and to Troy Hill of the Audiovisual Program Development Branch of the Lister Hill National Center for Biomedical Communications.

Credit for realizing the on-line exhibit goes to Doug Atkins, Roxanne Beatty, Cheri Smith, and Sandy Taylor, all of the History of Medicine Division.

The producers are grateful to Dr. Elizabeth Fee, Chief, History of Medicine Division, for her support, and to Dr. Michael Sappol of the Division, for his editorial assistance.