World AIDS Day: A Short History

Keep the Promise

On the eve of one of the most popular days in the medical calendar, the World AIDS Day, let me dwell on a short history of this day. Celebrated on 1st December every year, the World AIDS Day is dedicated to raising awareness, funding and acceptance of HIV/AIDS and the 35 million people worldwide living with it.

In August 1987, Thomas Netter and James W. Bunn, two public information officers for the Global Program on AIDS at the World Health Organization, Geneva, first thought of creating a day to specifically create awareness amongst the general people about the newly discovered disease, AIDS, caused by the Human Immunodeficiency Virus. They took this idea to Dr. Jonathan Mann, Director of the Global Program on AIDS, who liked it and recommended that they start observing the day from the following year.

Selecting 1st December was a public relations masterstroke. It was Bunn’s idea to pick that date. Bunn was a broadcast journalist on a leave of absence for two years to serve as the Information Officer for the Global Program on AIDS. 1988 was an election year in the US and he realized that they had to pick a date by which the media would be bored and tired of covering the election news and which would not be too close to the Christmas-New Year celebrations, so as not to be overshadowed by the festive mood of the people and the media. In fact, 1st December turned out to be a media dead spot, and the idea of World AIDS Day was lapped up by a news hungry media.

In order to understand how Bunn, a broadcast journalist for KPIX TV ended up spearheading a disease prevention and awareness program, we need to go back a little further. James Bunn, along with Nancy Saslow initiated the AIDS Lifeline, a health education and public awareness campaign conceived under the aegis of the KPIX-TV. It was a widely acclaimed program and won a number of awards, including a Peabody Award, a Local Emmy, and a National Emmy. Major recognition came when the Presidential Reference was awarded to it via President Ronald Reagan on 18th June, 1986 for outstanding Private Sector Initiatives. Dr. Jonathan Mann realized that Bunn was the main character behind the phenomenal success of the AIDS Lifeline and wanted him to support the formation of the Global Program on AIDS. It was here that Bunn met Netter and together, they conceived, designed and implemented the first edition of the World AIDS Day on 1st December, 1988, thereby starting the longest running public health program for disease prevention and awareness.

In 1996, the United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS, abbreviated to UNAIDS came into existence and took over the responsibility of organizing the World AIDS Day. It shifted the focus from celebrating just a single day to an entire year’s work. However, in the initial two years, it came under a lot of flak for choosing age-specific themes which would draw the attention away from the fact that people from any age could be susceptible to the disease. Personally, however, I think that if HIV/AIDS has to be fought, there should be a greater intensity in working with the youth, who hold the key to tomorrow.

Espoused by an organization designed specifically to meet the very principles on which the initial founders had conceived the World AIDS Day meant that the event got even greater media attention and was spread on a greater scale.

Come 2004 and the World AIDS Campaign became a sovereign organization, with the purpose of spreading the spirit of the World AIDS Day with even more conviction. One of the major changes since the World AIDS Campaign took over was a paradigm change in the structuring of the themes for World AIDS Day. From 2005 to 2010, the general theme was Stop AIDS: Keep the Promise. There were also yearly sub-themes to augment the message. For instance, the yearly sub theme for 2009 and 2010 was Universal Access and Human Rights. One notable thing is that this theme is not just central to the celebration of the World AIDS Day but also forms the foundation for the World AIDS Campaign to undertake year long program in the context of other major global events, like the G8 Summit.

Today, World AIDS Day stands as an important event in the global health map. Not only is it the longest running disease prevention and awareness dissemination program, but also it is, by far, the most successful public health campaign taken up in quite some time. The war against HIV/AIDS is far from over and the onus to join hands, keep the promise and stop AIDS is on us now.

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