IT REMAINS arguably the most confronting and controversial public health campaign ever launched in this country.
In 1987, as the full scale of the AIDS pandemic was gradually becoming clear, the so-called “Grim Reaper” ad hit our screens.
Featuring a scythe-wielding Grim Reaper rolling a bowling ball towards humans set up like ninepins, the ad left an indelible impression.
“At first only gays and IV drug users were being killed by AIDS. But now we know every one of us could be devastated by it,” said the ominous voice over.
“If not stopped, it could kill more Australians than World War II.”
Hysteria spread more quickly than HIV itself when the first AIDS deaths began to be documented among gay men in the United States in the early 1980s.
Initially scientists did not know what they were dealing with and as a result governments around the world did not know how to respond.
The uncertainty surrounding this highly infectious and deadly – but little understood – disease created a culture of fear.
Anti-gay campaigners seized upon the disease’s prevalence within the gay community as a vehicle to advance their views.
Confusion over how it could be transmitted led some to refuse to use public toilets and drinking fountains.
Meanwhile, millions of heterosexuals continued their high-risk sexual practices in the mistaken belief they had impunity.
The Grim Reaper advertisement, an initiative of the National Advisory Committee on AIDS, was designed to inform all Australians – not just gay men – about the risks of unprotected sex.
Ita Buttrose, the NACAIDS chairwoman at the time of the ad’s release, has since acknowledged the campaign was deliberately provocative.
“That was the intention, to wake up Australia out of its apathy,” she said.
As we mark World AIDS Day today, it is important to reflect on just how far we have come in terms of our understanding of HIV – the virus that causes AIDS – and AIDS itself.
Education on preventative measures has improved dramatically and the development of drugs means HIV is not a death sentence, but a manageable chronic disease.
However, with the number of newly diagnosed HIV infections in Australia averaging more than 1000 a year, there is no room for complacency.
- Ross Tyson, deputy editor