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    World AIDS Day: ‘My Health, My Right’

    By Dr. Bill Lipsky–

    In 1986, James Bunn was a broadcast journalist at KPIX in San Francisco. He and Nancy Saslow, a special projects producer, had just been honored with a Presidential Citation for Private Sector Initiatives for AIDS Lifeline, their community education series, when Jonathan Mann asked him to help create a Global Program on AIDS for the United Nations’ World Health Organization (WHO), headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland. Bunn accepted, becoming the initiative’s first Public Information Officer (PIO).

    Bunn remembered later at the time: “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,” most of which simply were wrong.

    Bunn believed that such animosity and ignorance made AIDS and those who might be affected by it “something that people didn’t want to talk about.” AIDS sufferers “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 jobs. 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.” 

    Bunn resolved to do something about these issues. Working with Thomas Netter, also a PIO at WHO in Geneva, the two men developed the idea of a World AIDS Day. On October 27, 1988, the U.N. General Assembly officially recognized the first occasion as December 1, 1988. It has been observed on December 1 each year since then, making it the longest-running disease awareness and prevention initiative of its kind in the history of public health. 

    The Global Program on AIDS became the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) in 1996. The next year, UNAIDS created the World AIDS Campaign to focus on year-round communications, prevention and education. The Campaign became an independent organization in 2004.

    Over the years, first World AIDS Day and then the World AIDS Campaign have emphasized and informed different issues about the disease and its consequences. The first year’s campaign was “Communication.” It was followed by “Youth,” “Women and AIDS,” and “Stigma and Discrimination,” among others.

    2017’s topic, “Increasing Impact Through Transparency, Accountability, and Partnerships,” is part of a year-long campaign, “My Health, My Right,” which “focuses on the right to health” and “explores the challenges people around the world face in exercising their rights.”

    The red ribbon has been the symbol of HIV and AIDS awareness since 1991. Adopted by the Visual AIDS Artists Caucus in New York, it was worn for the first time in public by the actor Jeremy Irons at that year’s Tony Awards. It has appeared on thousands of posters, numerous stamps—even a circulating coin—issued by countries all over the world to observe World AIDS Day and to encourage understanding. 

    Since 2007, the White House has recognized World AIDS Day by displaying a red ribbon on the North Portico. It was the first banner or symbol not an American flag to be prominently exhibited on the building since the presidency of Abraham Lincoln. From San Francisco’s City Hall to Baltimore’s Washington Monument to Inverness Castle to the Sydney Opera House, buildings and monuments worldwide glow with red light on December 1.

    Symbols and proclamations and stamps are not enough, however. Since the beginning of the epidemic, more than 76 million men, women, and children around the world have become infected with HIV, approximately the combined population of the 13 Western United States. 35 million people have died of AIDS-related illnesses, more than one million last year alone.

    Despite tremendous progress made across the years to combat the disease, the threat is not over. In 2016, approximately 1.8 million people around the world became newly infected with HIV, a number twice the total population of San Francisco. For the first time, more than half of the estimated 36+ million people living with HIV globally have access to life-saving treatment, but that still leaves at least 17 million who do not; some 30% of those who carry the virus do not know it.   

    Because HIV continues to be a major public health issue and a personal tribulation for people everywhere, World AIDS Day is still a vital initiative. Fortunately, each of us can help to stop this deadly disease, beginning with the time we give on World AIDS Day simply to:

    • talk with people we know and love about HIV prevention, about why this day still matters, and about HIV’s ongoing impact on our communities—and theirs;
    • volunteer at a nearby service organization;
    • contact local, state, and federal leaders to increase their response to addressing the epidemic;
    • join an awareness day event;
    • honor those whose lives have been lost to AIDS;
    • remember our shared humanity and act accordingly.

    Bill Lipsky, Ph.D., author of “Gay and Lesbian San Francisco” (2006), is a member of the Rainbow Honor Walk board of directors.