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Denying the Grim Reaper

  • 18 June 2006

When the first case of AIDS was reported in Australia 20 years ago, health experts braced themselves for a morbidity rate to rival World War II. In 1987, the Grim Reaper advertisements announced that 50,000 Australians might already be infected and this figure would continue to rise. Due to Australia’s pragmatic and innovative response, the rate of new HIV infections fell from approximately 2500 per year in the mid-1980s to less than 500 per year within a decade. Australia’s response represents a success story; one frequently cited by the World Health Organisation as a model for other countries.

‘Gays cause AIDS’

The first case of AIDS in Australia was diagnosed by Professor Ronald Penny, an immunologist at Sydney’s St Vincent’s Hospital, in November 1982. His patient was a 27-year-old New York City resident visiting Sydney. The case was reported six months later in the Medical Journal of Australia, by which time the first Australian had been diagnosed with AIDS. The early news reports of these cases were announced in a tone that bordered on hysteria. The public was left in no doubt about who was harbouring the fugitive, as media reports emphasised that all of the cases involved homosexual males and that this group in the US was in the middle of an epidemic. Even doctors lent support to the opinion that gays were responsible for exposing Australians to a malicious new killer.

The public’s anxiety about AIDS soon manifested in discrimination against homosexuals. A Sydney dentist banned homosexual patients from his surgery, and numerous gay men were evicted from their homes or denied accommodation. Sydney Telecom engineers refused to carry out repairs at the Pitt Street mail exchange because, they claimed, it was staffed by a large number of homosexual telephone operators ‘who probably had AIDS’. News that three Queensland babies had died from AIDS as a result of receiving HIV-contaminated blood donated by a homosexual prompted a gang of men to roam Sydney’s gay strip looking for poofters to punish.

Such responses continued even after the viral origin of AIDS had been established. In November 1984, New South Wales police called for a halt on random breath testing, and then insisted on being issued with plastic gloves, because they believed that HIV could be transmitted via the saliva of motorists. (This caused one commentator to ponder which part of the policeman’s apparatus the subject was required to blow.) Seven months later,