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How World AIDS Day Began


And World AIDS Day was commemorated by people around the globe. In Nepal, they lit oil lamps. They released balloons in Berlin. And in Romania, medical students danced during a flash mob event. In San Francisco, a haunting sculpture went on view made entirely of syringes, a reference to the transmission of HIV through intravenous drug use.

World AIDS Day began in 1988. Back then, James Bunn was a public information officer in Geneva at the Global Program on AIDS, part of the World Health Organization. He and his colleague, Thomas Netter, came up with the idea. Bunn took us back to that time 23 years ago and how people with HIV were viewed.

JAMES BUNN: The stigma that surrounded AIDS was actually twofold. One of it was what you could easily argue had to do with homophobia. But also there was a stigma of fear. There was a lot that people felt they did not know about the epidemic and they were afraid. And they were right to be afraid because of the things that they were hearing.

So, I think the stigma that surrounded it made it something that people didn't want to talk about. If it came into their lives, it was something that they didn't know what to say if it came into their lives. And there were also, for people who were affected by it, they did not want to bring up whatever it was that their experience was with it because in those days, people were being fired from their job. They were being denied Social Security benefits. They were being ostracized by their families. They were being evicted from their homes because they were sick and dying.

BLOCK: I was looking back on a story from 1988, from the year of the first World AIDS Day. And it was about a girl with AIDS who was allowed to go to school only if she was in the glass enclosure.


BUNN: I was on a talk show where someone in the back of the room said: What would you do if your kid went to school and at that school there was a child with AIDS? And I said, well, if that child was involved in having sexual intercourse - unprotected sexual intercourse at school or was involved in some activity that led to them bleeding on other kids, I would worry about that. Otherwise, I really wouldn't.

What is happening in those early days and why things like that horrible experience that that girl had to endure is because people were integrating that fear into their lives. And we've seen that change now. You don't see that same kind of thing.

BLOCK: Jim, can you think back on something concrete that has come from World AIDS Day beyond public awareness and perception and de-stigmatization? Is it just really a symbolic day or is there something practical that you think has come from it?

BUNN: I think the symbolism is not insignificant and I think it's not without substance. The fact that there's conversation occurs on an annual basis on World AIDS Day is significant. The fact that the president of the United States, on an annual basis now, comments, discusses AIDS, keeps it on the agenda.

I think a very, very concrete outcome from that ongoing discussion is the fact that, you know, President Bush put forward, you know, billions of dollars towards the AIDS prevention and education effort for the United Nations. I don't think that would've happened had it not been for World AIDS Day and other things that had been done to keep the momentum going, to keep this item on the agenda.

BLOCK: You mentioned momentum, which is interesting because, as we've heard, the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria has just announced it's going to be canceling funding for new programs; it says it hasn't received enough donations, which raises a lot of questions about the effect of that will be. What do you think?

BUNN: Well, obviously the effect of that is not good. But I think we all have to take a step back from any of these issues that we feel strongly about. We're in an economy now where there just isn't the same kind of discretionary money that people would have to make donations, whether those be individuals or corporations or foundations. And so, it's not good by any measure but its part of the world that we live in.

BLOCK: I've been talking with James Bunn, one of the co-founders of World AIDS Day, along with Tom Netter, back in 1988. He's now the president of the consulting firm Global Health Communication.

Jim, thanks so much.

BUNN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.