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HIV/AIDS Introduction

This section of the exhibit on HIV/AIDS examines how grassroots activists, voluntary organizations, and the public health bureaucracy confronted one of the greatest public health catastrophes of the twentieth century. By looking at a series of posters, the exhibit explore how educators dealt with myths about transmission, targeted certain segments of the population, overcame sexual taboos, and addressed the subjects of stigmatization and human rights.

General awareness of HIV/AIDS in the United States is often traced to a report by the Centers for Disease Control on a series of unusual occurrences of a rare form of cancer and a rare form of pneumonia amongst homosexual men in June 1981. By this time, the disease had spread to at least five continents without anyone knowing about or identifying the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) that caused it. Before the virus was isolated and identified in 1983, a number of theories circulated about the possible cause of the opportunistic infections associated with Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS). The puzzling initial cases created a feeling of impotence against the disease, and fear of its spread encouraged oversimplifications in media outlets that tended to identify the epidemic exclusively with homosexual white men and intravenous drug users.

Throughout much of the 1980s, medical and public health professions fumbled to understand this increasingly devastating epidemic and develop therapeutic and social approaches to halting its progress. As HIV/AIDS claimed a growing number of lives and the Reagan administration sponsored research but otherwise remained silent on the disease, Americans worried about the possibility of contagion through casual contact, and politicians called for the mandatory testing of the entire population and the quarantine of AIDS patients. The Surgeon General wasn't even authorized to issue a report on AIDS until 1986.

By the early 1990s HIV/AIDS had become a hotly contested political issue and had given rise to the patient activist movement that sought to counter scapegoating of HIV carriers. The epidemic ultimately defied the widespread confidence in medicine's ability to fight disease, challenged views of sexuality in American society, encouraged a reconciliation between scientific inquiry and compassionate care for the ill, and demanded a new approach to disease prevention and education from public health educators.

HIV/AIDS: Introduction > HIV/AIDS Transmission > Target Populations > Safe Sex and Condoms > Living with HIV/AIDS > Solidarity and Human Rights