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Health education poster, United Kingdom, 1987-1992

Can you tell if somebody has HIV or AIDS? Would they look different? This poster was part of a UK government campaign to combat a widely held belief that there was a distinct ‘Face of AIDS’. When AIDS first hit the headlines in the early 1980s, the media’s ‘Face of AIDS’ was one that was gaunt, emaciated and clearly ill. If the sufferer was a celebrity then their stricken image was often juxtaposed with a healthy, apparently pre-AIDS one. Such images stuck in the public imagination. In these early years much was made of the apparent link between HIV and distinct social groups. American epidemiologists initially termed those most at risk as the ‘4-H club’ – homosexuals, heroin-users, haemophiliacs and Haitians, the latter an ethnic group with a relatively high incidence of HIV carriers. Even as knowledge of the disease developed, public health campaigns tried to tackle the disease myths. What do these posters say to you? Their intended message was that there was no ‘Face of AIDS’, that an HIV positive individual looks like anybody else. But as attempts to de-stigmatise the disease, they didn’t always work. Follow-up research suggested that even this deliberately abstract “Two eyes, nose, mouth” poster was misread by some as suggesting that you could recognise people who carried the HIV virus by examining their facial features.

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Glossary: poster

Notice, usually printed on paper, intended to be posted to advertise, promote, or publicise an activity, cause, product, or service; also, decorative, mass-produced prints intended for hanging.

Glossary: AIDS

Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) is a disease caused by infections resulting from a weakened immune system due to the HIV virus. It leads to failure of the immune system and is usually fatal. It is spread through direct contact with bodily fluids.