Abstract cartoon figures cover thier ears, mouth, and eyes.

Getting to Zero: World AIDS Day

By Erika Mills

Currently, 35 million people around the world are living with HIV. Many lack access to vital information and resources that would help prevent the spread of the disease. For those living with HIV/AIDS, lifesaving medicines are often out of reach while discrimination presents yet another obstacle to health and well-being. In 1988, the World Health Organization (WHO) spearheaded an effort to raise awareness of the disease, provide education through public programming, and offer support to people living with HIV/AIDS. Twenty-five years later (and on every December 1st), we continue to observe World AIDS Day with those same objectives in mind. This year’s theme reflects these longstanding goals—“Getting to zero: Zero new HIV infections. Zero discrimination. Zero AIDS-related deaths.”

Abstract cartoon figures cover thier ears, mouth, and eyes.
AIDS: Trading Fears for Facts, A Guide for Teens, 1989
Keith Haring’s colorful, cartoonish, and iconic images brought a memorable aesthetic to several AIDS awareness campaigns. In 1989, after his own diagnosis, he founded the Keith Haring Foundation to make his art available to AIDS organizations, along with grants for research and care for others with HIV/AIDS. His brightly colored, featureless figures reminded viewers that AIDS did not discriminate and that everyone needed to make decisions about their health based on facts instead of fear. The foundation continues to work today in two related areas: support for children with AIDS and HIV/AIDS research, education and care.

Faced with the burgeoning international health crisis in the mid-1980’s, countries from across the globe united to tackle the HIV/AIDS pandemic head on. The WHO launched the Global Programme on AIDS (now UNAIDS) in 1986. Led by physician and human rights advocate, Jonathan Mann, the Programme advised governments and NGOs on disease prevention. Among their recommendations was ensuring people had access to basic needs for health, like housing, food, fair treatment, and medical care—things Jonathan Mann considered basic human rights. Public information officers from the Global Programme on AIDS conceived of World AIDS Day in 1987 and kicked off the effort on December 1, 1988. Since then, observances have taken place yearly in over 160 countries.

Close ups of faces and an image of several people talking on phones illustrate this poster for the Gay Mens Health Crisis hotline.
You are not alone, fight the fear, 1995
In 1982, the Gay Men’s Health Crisis formed in a New York City apartment to advocate for AIDS research as well as provide outreach and education. By stressing community, solidarity, and support, this poster reminded people that everyone was frightened of this new disease and taking action meant being informed.

World AIDS Day and other efforts to raise awareness have inspired people from all walks of life to get involved. In our online and traveling exhibition, Against the Odds: Making a Difference in Global Health, students, activists, and professionals offer advice on how anyone can make an impact in the fight against HIV/AIDS. Another of our online and traveling exhibitions, Surviving and Thriving: AIDS, Politics, and Culture, highlights current public education efforts and the work of Dr. Victoria Cargill, a physician at a community center in an area of Washington, DC that has a high infection rate. She is also the director of Minority Research and Clinical Studies at the National Institutes of Health’s Office of AIDS Research.

In recognition of World AIDS Day which we observe today, or to learn about HIV/AIDS on any day, visit the Surviving and Thriving exhibition online and view a selection of HIV/AIDS public health images from its Digital Gallery.

Erika MillsErika Mills is outreach coordinator for the Exhibition Program in the History of Medicine Division of the National Library of Medicine.

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