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Dec 1 2012

World Aids Day

On 1 December it is World Aids Day, an event that has been marked around the world for over twenty years, and which is synonymous with the red ribbon – the first of what are now a plethora of ’cause-related’ badges, ribbons and wristbands. Back in 1989, I was just sixteen, and along with three friends, I was chosen by my school to visit London for an AIDS education event. I spent the day hearing from scientists, campaigners and people living with HIV. They inspired us to return to our school and talk about the disease, the risks and encourage safe sex. So, armed with facts and inspired by the personal stories, I returned on a mission to demystify the disease and make it real for my friends. Talking about using a condom in school assembly certainly helped me gain some confidence in public speaking.

Looking back, I realise it was my first taste of communicating public health messages to an audience. I now have almost twenty years delivering behaviour change programmes, particularly in the health arena.

It’s a useful reminder to recognise why that day continues to be so memorable. HIV was presented as being relevant and meaningful to the lives of students living in the UK. And the messages were communicated directly, and with conviction, by young people affected by the disease, powerfully illustrating the strength of the ‘personal’ to build connections. We were also made to feel like we had the ability to think, act and change other’s hearts and minds, and as a teenager I found that extremely motivating.

These elements have subsequently been the essential building blocks of a broad range of health campaigns I’ve worked on; from reducing the stigma and discrimination around mental health problems, to increasing breastfeeding and reducing smoking.

HIV in the UK no longer makes headline news. Although 90,000 people in the UK, more than ever, are living with HIV, scientific advancements have meant the detection and treatment of the disease is almost unrecognisable from the 1980s. And that’s serious cause for celebration. I hope though that the low priority it is now accorded won’t come back to haunt us as current and future generations of young people grow up without the memory of the unforgettable early HIV education campaigns.