HIV & Aids

Don't Die of Ignorance

Norman Fowler recalls his time leading the British government's response to AIDS.
In 1987 the British government launched its Don't Die of Ignorance campaign - a public health message which would define AIDS for a generation. 

Behind the campaign was the then Secretary or State for Health and Social Services, Norman Fowler. In this episode he recalls the slow response to AIDS within Whitehall, and how he decided to take charge.

Through some careful political manoeuvring, he reveals how he side-stepped Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's concerns about explicit language, and that any mention of sex might encourage young people to take more risks, 

He also reveals the prejudice of high-profile public figures, and how they motivated him to do something about the emerging epidemic.

Narrator: Chris Pavlo
Producer: Richard Fenton-Smith

The Beginning

When the first cases of AIDS emerged in New York, gay men responded with fear and denial.
The coronavirus epidemic has shaken many of us out of a complacent view that if we get sick, doctors and nurses will know how to make us better again. 

Living in a time where there is limited treatment – and no cure - is a new experience for many of us, but not all.

A Big Disease with a Little Name looks back to the recent past to a similar time, and the dawn of the HIV/AIDS crisis, which to date has affected 75 million people around the world, of which some 32 million have died. 

 The series explores the emergence of HIV/AIDS through the stories of those who were on the front line. Speaking to gay men, doctors, nurses, politicians and activists, the series explores the confusion around the causes of this new disease, the frightening pace with which it spread, the pace of the political response and the devastating influence of conspiracy theories and fake news. 

In this first episode, Peter Staley recalls moving to New York in 1983,  to take up a job on Wall Street, as he puts it with 'one foot, if not two thirds of my body in the closet'. 

He recalls first hearing about a new 'gay cancer' and the response among young gay men like himself.  Some dismissed it as a condition only affecting promiscuous older gay men and was unlikely to affect the hot young things occupying the buzzing gay bars around Christopher Street and the East Village. 

But it wasn't long before most gay men living in New York knew someone who was sick, and when Peter was himself diagnosed HIV positive, he says the years of denial quickly evaporated. 

"It slapped you in the face. The reality took over and made everybody learn about it." 

At 24-years-old. Peter had to face up to the fact that, at best, he probably had two years to live.

Narrator: Chris Pavlo
Producer: Richard Fenton-Smith

Omnibus 2

Remembering the early years of the AIDS crisis, through the stories of people who lived it
The coronavirus epidemic has shaken many of us out of a complacent view that if we get sick, doctors and nurses will know how to make us better again.

Living in a time where there is limited treatment - and no cure - for a new disease is a new experience for many of us, but not all.

A Big Disease with a Little Name looks back to the recent past, to a similar time, and the dawn of the AIDS crisis, which to date has affected 75 million people around the world, of which some 32 million have died.

In this Omnibus edition, we hear from Maria Maggenti and Peter Staley about the formation of the AIDS activist group, ACT UP and how it put pressure on US authorities to speed-up research into potentially life-saving drugs. 

ACT UP carried out some audacious public protests, which often left New York at a standstill, and it took on the drugs company Burroughs Wellcome and Wall Street investors to lower the price of the first approved AIDS treatment, AZT.

But AZT's benefits were short-lived, as HIV grew resistant to it. This left people with HIV/AIDS looking for new experimental treatment options and an underground network of 'buyers clubs' became a resource for still to be approved medication. Christopher Harris tells his story of running the Atlanta Buyers Club. 

Forty years on since the first cases of AIDS emerged the series ends by reflecting on the ways the first wave of the AIDS crisis took its toll on the people who survived it, and asks how close are we to ending epidemic levels of HIV? 

Narrator: Chris Pavlo
Producer: Richard Fenton-Smith

The End of HIV/AIDS?

How close are we to eradicating epidemic levels of HIV - and do we need a cure to do so?
The 'triple cocktail' was a game-changer in treating HIV/AIDS when it arrived in 1996 - a combination of drugs which gave life to many men and women who were on the verge of death. 

However, for a generation of people living with HIV who had been expecting to die, the prospect of having to suddenly plan the rest of their lives was a burden some found hard to manage. 

As those drugs developed further, today it is possible to suppress HIV to 'undetectable' levels, with very few side effects for those taking the medication - but there is still no cure on the horizon. 

But do we really need one to eradicate the epidemic spread of HIV - and in turn, the stigma which still affects many people with the virus? 

Narrator: Chris Pavlo
Producer: Richard Fenton-Smith

The Doctor

The story of the UK's first research into AIDS, which began in 1982.
In 1979, as Jonathan Weber was finishing his studies in medicine, he was sure he was going to go into the infectious diseases field - a potentially bad career decision at the time, as it was thought the war was won on such diseases.  

But he learned about a new pattern of infections affecting gay men in America, and it was suggested that he start looking for cases in the UK too. 

In 1982, he began working with the first cohort of AIDS patients at St Mary's Hospital in Paddington, where he led the treatment of some 400 patients. 

This pioneering work was the first research into AIDS in the UK - work Professor Weber describes as very much a partnership with the patients who gave their time and blood to better understand this emerging epidemic.

Narrator: Chris Pavlo
Producer: Richard Fenton-Smith

[Photo Credit: Jonathan Weber/Imperial College London]

Ward 5B

In 1983 the first ward dedicated to AIDS opened at the San Francisco General Hospital.
In the early 1980s, Alison Moed Paolercio was taking shifts at the San Francisco General Hospital, while studying for her nursing degree. It was there she first noticed young men in isolation units, as a result of a mystery illness they had developed. 

What shocked Alison was the disdain her fellow nurses showed for these patients, who were at that time exclusively young, gay men. 

"I had never really encountered that kind of prejudice among nurses before," she says.  "I was angry. And it made me less afraid of taking care of them, perhaps."

What followed was the opening of the first dedicated AIDS ward in the world,  where Alison was one of the first dozen nurses charged with taking care of patients suffering from this new and complex disease. 

The staff on Ward 5B and the local community created an holistic approach to caring for AIDS patients, which would be known as The San Francisco Model, and which would be emulated around the world.

Narrator: Chris Pavlo
Producer: Richard Fenton-Smith