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Higher Education Modules

Society at Odds: Educating the Public and Preventing AIDS

Class 5: AIDS as a Disease in Social and Political Context

The two digital galleries in the “Surviving and Thriving” website, America Responds to AIDS and You Can’t Get AIDS provide two bodies of AIDS outreach materials aimed at a national audience, offering perspectives on AIDS as a social issue. The posters from America Responds to AIDS include a variety of images and messages aimed at a broad audience of Americans. This campaign offers a case study of the Center for Disease Control’s (CDC) response to AIDS, which strikes a sharp contrast with the messages from activist groups discussed in classes 2 and 3. This national response used television and print media to address issues of stigma, ignorance, and exemption for a primarily heterosexual audience who may not have considered themselves at risk. For many Americans outside of major cities, AIDS remained a mysterious killer well into the 1980s. Much of this campaign attempted to dispel common myths while promoting safe practices couched in soft, vague language. The other digital gallery, You Can’t Get AIDS From,includes images from local governments and organizations, all of which focused on correcting the widely held myths on how people could and could not protect against AIDS. Both outreach campaigns offer examples of the conflicting ideas and opinions that complicated the challenge of educating the nation on what would keep them safe from AIDS and its stigma. The opinion piece from former New York City Mayor Ed Koch offers another example of conflicting messages from those in positions of power; he condemns then Senator Jesse Helms’s public declaration that federal funding could not be used to fund any organization that existed to, “promote, encourage or condone homosexual activities.” Koch’s defense of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC), a prominent New York AIDS activist group, offers students clear evidence of conflicts within local, state, and federal governments.


Koch, Edward. “Senator Helms’s callousness toward AIDS victims,” New York Times, November 7, 1987, accessed April 15, 2013,

National Library of Medicine. “Digital Gallery: America Responds to AIDS.” Surviving and Thriving: AIDS, Politics, and Culture.

National Library of Medicine. “Digital Gallery: You Can’t Get AIDS From.” Surviving and Thriving: AIDS, Politics, and Culture.

Discussion Questions
  1. What is Mayor Koch’s main criticism of Senator Helms? What does he mean when he writes “lousy politics overwhelmed good public health policy”? In what ways might this be true or not true?
  2. How does Koch describe the work of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC)? How does he describe their approach? Compare his description with the images from the government funded America Responds to AIDS. Do you think this campaign employs the same tactics as the GMHC (as described by Koch)? In what ways are they the same? Different?
  3. What similarities exist between the two galleries? What are the themes of each gallery, and what images do you think most effectively express those ideas? Which of these posters do you think is most effective and why?
  4. Looking at the images in the You Can’t Get AIDS From digital gallery, what are the pieces of misinformation these posters are attempting to correct? What is the tone of these posters? What audiences are they addressing? How are they effective or ineffective?
  5. Look at the poster for “There is a Simple Way to Prevent AIDS” . What is the prevention method this poster recommends? Is it a simple solution or more complicated? Why?
  6. Examine the posters in the image block for “What Have You Got Against a Condom” in the America Responds to AIDS gallery. Using materials from other classes or your own knowledge, explain both sides of this argument. What might users have against using condoms? Are there other groups who opposed using condoms? What was (or is) their concern? What was the argument for using condoms to prevent AIDS?
  7. Who is the audience for the “After Devastating…” poster? Why would this audience be the target of specific education? Do you think this would be an effective approach for this audience? Why or why not?
  8. Compare and contrast “With AIDS Around…” and “Detour”. What do the signs symbolize or warn people about in each case? What specific information do the posters offer about preventing or protecting against AIDS? Whom do you think each poster was attempting to reach? Which do you think was more effective? Why?