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Surviving & Thriving: AIDS, Politics, and Culture

Harm Reduction/Clean Needles

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In the early 1980s, many believed that identity not behavior put people at risk for contracting AIDS. Known collectively as the 4 H’s: homosexuals, hemophiliacs, heroin users (representing all intravenous drug users), and Haitians, the four groups were considered vulnerable and blamed for spreading the disease. Intravenous drug users brought with them an all-too-familiar public health challenge. How do you inform, protect, and support a group that engages in behaviors deemed illegal and potentially considered wrong or sinful?

One answer, as illustrated in these public health campaigns, was harm reduction—the idea that if you could not stop people from using intravenous drugs, you could, at least, get them information about how to protect themselves while doing so. Using blunt, straightforward language, these campaigns spoke to needle users and the people who had sex with them. For general audiences, those who might see the materials in passing, harm-reduction campaigns underscored the idea that disliking or disapproving of a risky behavior was inconsequential: value judgments did nothing to prevent the spread of AIDS.