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“The earliest representations of AIDS as a ‘plague’ or as a ‘gay plague’ suggested that aids was being made to carry a heavy burden of meanings and connotations quite extraneous to the virus itself and more to do with unresolved fears about sexuality and social order” (Eldridge, 213). The first reports of this disease were in medical journals and weren’t seen until 1981, although the symptoms associated with this disease had been noted in gay patients as early as 1979. The mainstream press was very uninterested in getting involved. The first “expert” appeared on Good Morning America for forty-five seconds to respond to an article that was printed in the December 1981 issue of the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine. In the first six months only five stories about this new epidemic appeared in the national press. In these early times the disease had been named GRID – Gay Related Immune Deficiency by the Center for Disease Control (Juhasz, 45). It wasn’t until the end of July 1982 that the CDC adopted the name “acquired immune deficiency syndrome- AIDS” as the official name of the new disease (www.library.ucsf.edu/sc/ahp/). Since the average person wasn’t considered to be at risk there was almost no mainstream coverage of the disease.
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“The history of AIDS includes a history of struggle over meanings and representations. AIDS is not only a medical crisis on an unparalleled scale, it involves a crisis of representation itself, a crisis over the entire framing of knowledge about the human body…” (Eldridge, 212).
There have also been divisions over the terminology used to describe people with HIV. On one side, AIDS victims are still seen as ‘doomed’ or ‘human time-bombs’ who are ‘sentenced to death’ or ‘cursed’. Then on the other, they are just seen as ‘people living with AIDS’ or ‘people with the virus’. These issues are a few of the important issues involved in te debate of the role of the media in our understanding of AIDS (Eldridge, 212).
It wasn’t until 1983 that the mainstream press began reporting on this disease. At this time the disease had killed almost fifteen hundred people (based on CDC control statistics for the US) and health officials declared AIDS the United States number one health priority (www.usatoday.com/life/health/1hs650.htm). “The mainstream press coverage increased by six hundred percent, based on the release of a report in the Journal of the American Medical Association that the virus could be contracted casually, as well as reports that the virus could be contracted through blood transfusions” (Juhaz, 45-46).
In 1986, the Department of Health began an AIDS education campaign that focused on heterosexual or ‘everyone’. The campaign was met with much criticism because it was still the belief of the majority that AIDS was a disease that affected only ‘gays, junkies and foreigners’ (Elderidge, 214). It was said that the campaign was not only focusing on the wrong groups but also being dishonest foe addressing everyone and normal heterosexual sex. In 1989, Lord Kilbracken, a minority voice on the all Parliamentary Group on AIDS claimed that there was only one case of AIDS proven to be caused by heterosexual sex. The newspapers, of course backed up the story and ran articles with headlines like, ‘THE TRUTH ABOUT AIDS’ and ‘STRAIGHT SEX CANNOT GIVE YOU AIDS – OFFICIAL’ (Elderidge, 215).