25 years of HIV - a UK perspective

For international information on the history of HIV and AIDS visit:

Kaiser Family Foundation



The discovery of HIV in the US in 1981 was accompanied by widespread discrimination, exacerbated by homophobia and myths about HIV being spread by casual contact such as kissing or touching.

In the UK, a prompt response by the UK Government created mass public awareness about the risks of HIV. The Don’t Die of Ignorance campaign, launched in 1987, featuring icebergs and tombstones instantly put HIV on everyone’s agenda. The introduction of needle exchanges in 1986 ensured that the number of people infected through injecting drug use remained low over the next two decades.

Princess Diana’s high profile support of people living with HIV and AIDS attracted enormous media attention, for the first time challenging widespread myths and prejudice. The first World AIDS Day was launched in 1988 at a meeting of international health ministers.


Public awareness and celebrity support for the fight against HIV was high throughout the nineties. Eastenders was the first TV programme to introduce HIV into a storyline, and Freddie Mercury’s death from AIDS brought the tragedy of AIDS home to millions of fans worldwide. The National AIDS Trust Concerts of Hope for World AIDS Day featured bands such as Take That and George Michael and the blockbuster film Philadelphia brought the issues of HIV discrimination to a global audience.

The development of combination therapy in the mid nineties transformed the epidemic in developed countries, and HIV went from being a death sentence to a serious long-term health condition.

Since 2000

The National Strategy on Sexual Health and HIV was launched offering hope of greater investment and prioritisation of HIV services in the NHS. However, diversion of funds away from HIV and lack of investment in prevention programmes has accompanied rising HIV rates, particularly among gay men and African communities.

Changes to the Disability Discrimination Act in 2005 recognised for the first time that people living with HIV could experience discrimination without showing symptoms of AIDS. High profile public announcements by pop star Andy Bell and cabinet minister Chris Smith of their HIV status also encouraged a climate of greater openness.

But, discrimination still exists, and with an increase in cases of HIV among heterosexual Africans living in the UK, it is often linked to xenophobia and anti-migration sentiment.

Internationally, 40 million people live with HIV worldwide and with only 8% of people with the virus in developing countries having access to treatment there were 3 million deaths in 2005. However, unprecedented top-level agreements since 2000, (UNGASS, Africa Commission, G8) and the roll out of treatment to 1.3 million people in developing countries have been important steps forward.

25 years of HIV: key dates

1981 First documented case of AIDS (then referred to as GRID)
1982 AIDS first used as a term and is detected on five continents
1985 Rock Hudson first public figure to be known to have died of AIDS
1986 Needle exchanges first piloted in the UK
1987 Don’t Die of Ignorance campaign
1987 Photographs of Princess Diana holding the hand of an AIDS patient broadcast around the world
1987 First form of anti-retroviral treatment available (AZT) in the US
1987 National AIDS Trust founded
1987 First successful form of HIV ‘anti-body’ tests widely available in the UK
1988 First World AIDS Day held
1989 First HIV awareness materials targeted at gay men produced by Health Education Authority
1990 Mark Fowler diagnosed HIV positive on Eastenders
1991 Half of the 500,000 people living with HIV in the West had died
1991 Freddie Mercury died
1991 Red ribbon becomes the international symbol of HIV
1991 Princess Diana becomes patron of the National AIDS Trust
1991 Number of people infected with HIV worldwide reaches 10 million
1995 The film Philadelphia screened
1995 First combination therapy treatment available in the US dramatically improving the life chances of people living with HIV
1996 UNAIDS established
1999 90% of all people living with HIV are in the developing world
2001 Pharmaceutical companies abandon court case against South Africa’s Treatment Access Campaign, allowing generic production of anti-retrovirals for the first time
2001 UK National Strategy on Sexual Health and HIV launched
2002 Global Fund to fight AIDS, TB and Malaria set up to increase funding to fight the world’s biggest killer diseases
2003 The 3 x 5 initiative launched to get treatment to 3 million people by 2005
2005 40 million people worldwide and over 58,000 people in the UK are living with HIV. Globally only 1.3 million people have access to treatment