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AIDS: The first 20 years
AIDS: The first 20 years (part one),7369,500773,00.html

AIDS: The first 20 years (part two),6903,500528,00.html

AIDS: The first 20 years (part one) 
by Simon Garfield

On 5 June 1981, an obscure medical journal reported a mysterious ill-
ness that had killed five young gay men in Los Angeles. It was the 
first mention of what later became known as Aids. Since then, HIV has 
infected almost 50,000 people in the UK. But now, thanks to new 
treatments, it is no longer the automatic death sentence we once 
feared. Simon Garfield, who's tracked the disease for the past dec-
ade, recounts the story of the holocaust that never happened and re-
visits some of the men and women who have lived to tell their tale

Special report: Aids
03.06.01: Britain braced for an AIDS explosion

Simon Garfield
Sunday June 3, 2001
The Observer

Part one: The Memory 

1 Dan versus Danny 

Soon it will be time for Danny La Rue to sing. At the Pleasance thea-
tre in north London at the beginning of May 2001, the 73-year-old en-
tertainer stands onstage in a blue dress and high white hair and an-
nounces that he has been in show business for 51 years. He has some 
personal observations about Bill Clinton ('He propositioned me in the 
Oval Office!') and Zsa Zsa Gabor ('She was wearing so many feathers 
you could have stuck them up her arse and she'd have flown home'), 
and then he launches into a suggestive song he used to sing on the 
Good Old Days. As he sings, the occasional glittery bead and sequin 
drops from his dress. This, bizarrely, is rather good entertainment, 
and is relished by an enthusiastic audience of sweet-smelling moneyed 
gay men, tonight being a fundraising night for the Aids charity Cru-

Tickets cost GBP30 per head, including a smoked-salmon titbit in the 
interval and a post-show video-signing session with Danny in the 
foyer. The night is divided into two parts. In the first, 'Danny La 
Rue' shimmies around doing his rude-marrow song and Marlene Dietrich 
routine, and in the second 'Dan' comes out in black shirt and gold 
medallion and slightly less make-up, and talks about his friendships 
with Barbara Windsor, Ronnie Corbett and his eventful and unique ca-
reer as an actor, singer, club owner, window dresser and drag artist.

'I have never taken a frock home - not once,' he says at the very 
start, lest anyone suspect he actually wore this stuff around the 
kitchen. 'When I did Through the Keyhole, some young TV girl asked me 
if I would come to the door wearing a frock and I said: "Fuck off!"'

He talks about his religious upbringing in Ireland, his memories of 
60s Soho, his loving relationship with his manager Jack. He is 
prompted by questions from the audience, written on pink cards during 
the interval and collected in a champagne bucket. 'Ask him anything 
you want!' the invitation said, so I asked him a question about Aids.

I wrote, 'This is a big night for Crusaid. How has your own life been 
affected by Aids?' I was told that the questions were edited before 
his warm-up man put them to him on stage, so I wrote on the top of 
it, 'I love you, Danny! Please don't ignore this one!' He didn't, but 
there was quite a pause before he answered.

'I have a Filofax,' he began. 'A very tired one. On one of the pages 
all my friends have gone, and every time I try to put a pen through 
their names I find it impossible. One of my dearest friends, Wayne 
King [the flamboyant pianist], fell very unwell in Australia last 
year. It took me 31 hours to get there, and I used that time to pre-
pare myself. He used to be such a brilliant, handsome man, and when I 
met him he was very gaunt. He was about four or five stone. I spent 
11 days from morning to night with him, and we got him walking on two 
sticks. But then I had to leave, and I was working on a cruise ship, 
and I got a call in the night that Wayne had passed over. He was two-
and-a-half stone. Bobby Crush was also on the cruise, and he did a 
tribute to him - Wayne had a big hit with 'Cavatina', and when Bobby 
played it, the audience went mad. Wayne would have loved it - he was 
very vain and wonderful. Our friends.' At this point, Danny La Rue's 
voice begins to crack. He resumes: 'This dreadful, dreadful disease 
that has taken so many people away. I don't think anyone in this room 
tonight hasn't lost a friend. One day, probably, it will all be some-
thing silly and we'll all be fine. I have a deep feeling that it will 
all be fine.'

2 The toll 

At the head office of the Terrence Higgins Trust in Victoria, the 
prognosis is a little more precise. It is exactly 20 years since the 
first reported case of Aids. Nick Partridge, the Trust's chief execu-
tive since 1991, has a file above his desk containing the most re-
cently published Aids and HIV tables. These figures, compiled by the 
Public Health Laboratory Service and the Scottish Centre for Infec-
tion and Environmental Health, contain the cumulative data to the end 
of March 2001. In the coldest of lights, they tell the history of the 
disease over the past 20 years.

This is what the figures show: there have been 44,988 reported cases 
of HIV in the last two decades, of which 14,038 people have died. Of 
the HIV total, 25,806 are believed to have resulted from sex between 
men, 11,667 from sex between men and women, 3,695 from intravenous 
drug use, 1,351 from blood-clotting factor used predominantly to 
treat haemophilia, 751 from mother to baby transfer, and 314 from 
blood transfusion and tissue transfer (1,404 remain undetermined). Of 
the 44,946 case reports in which sex was stated, 36,398 were men, 
8,548 women.

We may view these figures in a number of ways: a terrible tragedy, an 
awful waste, the effects of HIV/Aids stretching far beyond those im-
mediately affected. But we may also view it as a relatively lucky es-
cape. For a number of reasons, the UK has not suffered from the dev-
astation that some once feared. The current rate of HIV infection is 
still a serious cause for concern, but it is nothing compared with 
the situation elsewhere in the world. The United Nations estimates 
that 36.2m people worldwide are presently living with HIV, and that 
20m people have already died from the virus. Cumulatively, this is 
almost as many people as the entire population of the United Kingdom. 
At the end of 2000 it was estimated that 25.3m people in sub-Saharan 
Africa had HIV, 5.8m in South and Southeast Asia, 1.4m in Latin Amer-
ica, 920,000 in North America, 700,000 in Eastern Europe and Central 
Asia, 640,000 in East Asia and the Pacific, 540,000 in Western 
Europe, 400,000 in North Africa and the Middle East, 390,000 in the 
Caribbean, and 15,000 in Australia and New Zealand.

The stories that come out of Africa - of negative population growth, 
of battles with the drug companies for cheaper drugs, of the despera-
tion for even the most untried of vaccines - are the big Aids issues, 
and appropriately figure large in today's news agendas. But the story 
of Aids in the UK is an instructive one. From it we may learn much 
about the nature of panics, about health education, about how a gov-
ernment talks to its citizens about sex and what citizens do when 
they find out that sex can kill. And in a troubling way, we can learn 
that even in the UK the story of Aids is far from over. This year it 
is predicted there may be more than 3,000 new, avoidable infections. 
Last year, when many with Aids were benefiting from great advances in 
drug treatment, there were 3,434 newly reported cases of HIV. This is 
more than in any year since the epidemic began.

When Nick Partridge, a gay man, considers the figures in his file he 
remembers, among many things, a trail of disaster. 'The really key 
thing to remember is how young everyone was, and how unusual and 
shocking it was for us to see people of our own age becoming so sick, 
so thin, and dying so quickly. The fact that it was also transmissi-
ble, and transmissible through the most intimate part of our lives, 
quadrupled that shock. Before Aids, the doctors in the clinics and 
hospitals were used to working in an environment where mostly they 
were helping people get better.'

Above all, Partridge remembers the relentlessness: a continuous 
stream of bad news, new terrors, heartbreaking funerals. 'For a long 
while, Aids was the only thing in our lives.' And for many months, 
the vast majority of the country knew almost nothing about it.

3 The terror 

The first indication that something was wrong came from America on 5 
June 1981. On the the second page of the Morbidity and Mortality 
Weekly Report (MMWR) from the Centers of Disease Control in Atlanta, 
there was a straightforward story that a rare illness, Pneumocystis 
carinii pneumonia, had killed five young gay men in Los Angeles.

The pneumonia was not yet linked to another unusual symptom that had 
also struck gay men in San Francisco and New York, Kaposi's sarcoma. 
This was a cancer that usually only afflicted old men from Mediterra-
nean countries. It would be two years before a causative agent, which 
came to be known as human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), was isolated.

Within weeks of the MMWR bulletin, the gay community began to do what 
it had learnt to do very well: talk in secret. Before Aids was Aids 
it was a 'gay syndrome' and then GRID, (gay-related immune defi-
ciency) and then ACIDS (acquired community immunodeficiency syn-
drome). There were many possible causes: recreational drugs, a ge-
netic predisposition, an overload of familiar sexually transmitted 
diseases that had finally wrecked the body's defences. There seemed 
to be one seriously advocated method of prevention: don't have sex 
with Americans. Within a very short while, British gay activists and 
medical researchers realised that Aids was already among them.

In 1981, Dr Tony Pinching, a 33-year-old specialist in the workings 
of the immune system, helped to conduct a study at St Mary's Praed 
Street Clinic in London. One hundred sexually active gay men were 
asked intimate questions about their lives and took a battery of 
blood tests. The men displayed none of the Aids marker illnesses that 
had been evident in the United States, but their blood samples showed 
many immune cell abnormalities and a decreased ability to fight off 
disease. Within weeks, Pinching was seeing his first Aids patients.

These men were the cause of much speculation, and so Pinching asked 
one of them to accompany him to a case presentation for fellow doc-
tors. 'I just wanted them to know that this wasn't a Martian,' he re-
membered. 'This was an ordinary bloke, only he happened to be a gay 
man, so what. So he came in, and I can still hear the drawing-in of 
breath, the hush that descended. Here was the moment of reality for 
that audience; this wasn't just a strange disease that we read about 
in the journals with a strange sort of people who do bizarre things. 
This was an ordinary bloke, you could have met him anywhere, and he 
was terribly straightforward.'

In London's genito-urinary medicine (GUM) clinics, highly confiden-
tial places frequently attended by those with infections such as 
syphilis and gonorrhoea, gay men began appearing with purple lesions 
on their faces and bodies, the telltale indicator of Kaposi's sar-
coma. 'It was very difficult to get them hospitalised,' one GUM doc-
tor told me. 'It was very difficult to get patients treated as normal 
human beings. People were frightened; they thought it was contagious; 
the patients had to be put in side wards. It was like medicine 600 
years ago.'

Another young doctor, Ian Weller, remembered: 'The fears then were 
not necessarily unfounded, as we didn't know what we were dealing 
with. One night I was sitting in a patient's room [in hospital] and 
this hand came round the door with food on it, and just dumped it. I 
laughed with the patient, who said, "It happens all the time." Within 
five minutes a bunch of flowers flew across the room - whoosh! That 
time I didn't even see the hand.'

Not long afterwards, Pinching saw his first case of heterosexual 
Aids, an English woman whose husband had been having sexual contact 
in Africa. 'That told us that there was going to be a heterosexual 
epidemic,' he says, although it took time convincing government 
health officials. One said, 'Where's the epidemiology?' Pinching re-
plied, 'Well, I'm telling you the anecdote, and today's anecdote is 
tomorrow's epidemiology. Your move.'

One of the earliest male patients was 37-year-old Terry Higgins, a 
computer programmer. His partner, Rupert Whittaker, recalled that 
Higgins had complained of frequent headaches and that he was prone to 
collapse and unfamiliar symptoms. At the hospital, Whittaker remem-
bered the doctors as dismissive: 'I was not next of kin - I was not 
worth considering.' One of the house staff told him that if he wanted 
more information he should wait until the case was written up in one 
of the journals.

Five months after Higgins's death in July 1982, Whittaker and a group 
of his friends founded a new charity to raise money for research, be-
ginning with a themed party at the gay nightclub Heaven. The news of 
the charity, and the fact that three other Londoners had died from 
Aids, was announced in Capital Gay under the headline 'US Disease 
Hits London'. Another publication, Gay News, wrote how most people 
still thought of Aids as 'a media import, like Hill Street Blues'.

The early meetings of the Terrence Higgins Trust took place in the 
London flat occupied by Tony Whitehead. Whitehead was a teacher and a 
member of Gay Switchboard, and along with a few friends, a few of 
whom were medics, he organised more fundraisers and public meetings. 
He also helped produce the Trust's first Aids information leaflet. It 
began by outlining the symptoms: swollen glands, fever, night sweats, 
pink to purple lesions. Other sections were helplessly naive. There 
was no mention of condoms or the risks of anal sex. 'Have as much sex 
as you want,' it stated, 'but with fewer people and with HEALTHY 
PEOPLE.' The leaflet concluded with the message 'Help yourself!' The 
subtext was: because nobody else will.

'I don't mind telling you, I was very, very scared,' Whitehead remem-
bered a few years later. He described the educational and support 
work of the Trust and other gay groups as 'essentially a crucial sur-
vivalist policy formulated by a community that believed it was being 
left to slowly die'.

In the spring of 1983, BBC Horizon made a film called The Killer in 
the Village concerning the situation in the New York. It was one of 
the first programmes with the message that gay men's lives were worth 
taking seriously, and it raised many unanswerable questions. Martin 
Amis reviewed it in The Observer: 'With Aids. it seems to be promis-
cuity itself that is the cause. After a few hundred "tricks" or sex-
ual contacts, the body just doesn't want to know any more, and nature 
proceeds to peel you wide open. The truth, when we find it, may turn 
out to be less "moral", less totalitarian. Meanwhile, however, that 
is what it looks like. Judging by the faces and voices of the vic-
tims, that is what it feels like, too.' 

Within a few months, it was clear that the (as yet un-isolated) virus 
had already found its way into other sections of the population. By 
the end of 1983, two British haemophiliacs had been diagnosed with 
Aids. In November, the health minister Kenneth Clarke declared that 
'there is no conclusive evidence that Aids is transmitted by blood 
products', but there were worrying signs from America. Sixty per cent 
of the UK's blood-clotting concentrate Factor VIII was imported, most 
of it from the United States, where donors were paid for their blood; 
some US-supplied plasma may also have been gathered from Africa. Be-
fore a screening test became widely available, there was no way of 
knowing; the British Medical Journal reported that the majority of 
opinion held that the risk of a person with haemophilia suffering a 
haemorrhage by not receiving their clotting agent far outweighed the 
risk of contracting Aids from it.

The true picture only emerged in the middle of 1985. Dr Peter Jones, 
the director of the Newcastle Haemophilia Reference Centre, tested 99 
of his patients with severe Haemophilia A, all but one of whom had 
received commercial Factor VIII. Seventy-six tested positive for HIV. 
Jones had befriended these patients over many years, and now had to 
tell them the news. 'You see a child who five years ago you knew was 
going to live a normal, lengthy life and a high-quality life, and 
he's suddenly infected and dying. You feel anguish for a nurse who's 
taught somebody how to inject themselves, or has injected them her-
self, and then she realises she must have been injecting the virus at 
the same time. And it must be horrible to be a mother who's done that 
to her son.'

Dr Jones's patients were part of a total of almost 700 haemophiliacs 
who were HIV positive at this point, and by the end of 1986 there 
were 1,062 reports of infection among haemophiliacs or those who had 
received a transfusion or tissue replacement. A few of their partners 
were also infected. When the extent of the problem first appeared, 
Barney Hayhoe, Conservative minister for health, announced with ro-
bust authority that 'Aids is a very serious disease.' He considered 
it 'vital we do all we can to control the further spread. and to help 
those who have already been exposed'. And so a prolonged battle for 
compensation began.

In Edinburgh, another calamity was unfolding. An informal Lothian re-
gion Aids group had obtained some testing kits from the United 
States, and used them on stored sera from local haemophiliacs. A few 
came up positive, which was surprising because Scotland had been 
self-sufficient in blood products for several years. The tests were 
repeated, this time using injecting drug users as a control group. A 
vast number of the drug users had HIV.

In subsequent tests, the prevalence of HIV infection was 50 per cent 
or higher. Of the 3,695 HIV cases resulting from intravenous drug 
use, 1,173 are believed to have been acquired in Scotland, the major-
ity in Edinburgh. This represents more than one-third of all the 
3,022 HIV cases in the region. The reasons for this are rooted in 
three concurrent events of the early 80s: the increasing popularity 
and cheap supply of heroin; the methods by which heroin was injected 
(a system known as 'booting' or 'flushing' whereby the drug is washed 
out of the syringe into the bloodstream by repeatedly drawing back 
the plunger and injecting the user's own blood), and the frequency of 
sharing equipment owing to the difficulty of obtaining sterile nee-
dles. The Lothian and Borders police had been tough on drugs for 
years: along with drugs, all drug paraphernalia was also seized, and 
chemists and other surgical suppliers would be prosecuted if it was 
believed that their equipment could find its way to drug users. And 
so people shared their needles and spread disease. In fact, grim ex-
perience with an earlier hepatitis outbreak showed that there was no 
more efficient way of doing so; in one particular story, a needle was 
passed around one estate in Muirhouse for three months.

In the tabloid press, hysteria raged. The story of the haemophiliacs 
presented a handy counterpoint to those concerning homosexuals and 
drug addicts. The prejudice was transparent: gay men and drug users 
had brought the disease upon themselves and deserved condemnation, 
while haemophiliacs, the 'innocent' victims, deserved all the sympa-
thy and compensation; at last, some papers found a way of legitimis-
ing their homophobia. And so a woman was scared because a plumber she 
thought was gay had recently fixed her cistern; pathologists refused 
to conduct autopsies; firemen banned the kiss of life; footballers 
wouldn't share the communal baths at Wembley; you could get it from 
Communion wine; BT engineers refused to fix the phones at a lesbian 
and gay advice centre for fear of catching Aids from the wiring. And 
in the pub, the jokes: How many gays does it take to change a light-
bulb? None: in intensive care they do that kind of thing for you. And 
what turns fruits into vegetables?

4 The iceberg 

At the close of 1985, the Conservative government decided it could 
ignore the problem of Aids no longer. Gay activists had already 
mounted their own health education campaigns with vigour and success 
for three years, but their funds were limited and their efforts were 
often marginalised and censored. Many gay men believed they were be-
ing left to fend for themselves, and lobbied for a nationwide health 
education programme that would de-stigmatise what was still widely 
regarded as a gay disease; from now on, HIV became an 'equal opportu-
nity virus'. The campaign that resulted featured television adver-
tisements that none who saw them would easily forget.

Mrs Thatcher, who had rarely expressed much interest in the plight of 
gay men, had finally been persuaded - in part by the plight of haemo-
philiacs, in part by the frantic attention of the press - that some-
thing might have to be done for the population as a whole. Person-
ally, she found the subject distasteful, and delegated the subject of 
Aids first to Norman Fowler, the Secretary of State for Social Secu-
rity and later to Deputy Prime Minister William Whitelaw. Both re-
ceived the shrewd advice of the Chief Medical Officer Sir Donald 
Acheson and a group of vociferous doctors who had seen the early 
stages of an epidemic on their wards.

The problem was, the government had not addressed its people about 
sexual health since it had tackled the issue of syphilis during the 
First World War. The language of the bedroom, much less the backroom, 
was not something it felt entirely at ease with.

The first Aids campaign was to take the form of full-page newspaper 
advertisements over one weekend in March 1986. Almost five years into 
the epidemic, a group of earnest people thus sat down at the DHSS to 
discuss the topic of anal sex. According to one civil servant, one 
minister 'had real problems. He was deeply ignorant about sexual mat-
ters - he was unable to pronounce "vagina". You've no idea what a 
problem it is to talk to someone who doesn't believe in sex anyway.' 
On another occasion, the subject of oral sex arose. 'Oral sex?' one 
minister asked. 'Do we know how many people do this sort of thing?'

What readers finally saw in the newspapers was almost unrecognisable 
from earlier drafts submitted by the agency TBWA. The text was pre-
ceded by a warning, signed by the four chief medical officers, that 
what was to follow 'may shock but should not offend you as we are 
talking about an urgent medical problem'. At this stage, there were 
about 7,500 cases of HIV. 

One of the drafts contained the following frank explanation: 'During 
sexual intercourse, minute breaks may occur in the walls of the va-
gina. It is through these that the infected semen passes. As the rec-
tum is far more delicate than the vagina, it is more easily damaged. 
This means anal intercourse is the easiest way of being infected.' 
But this was excised from the final version on the firm instruction 
of Margaret Thatcher. On her suggestion, the term 'anal intercourse' 
became first 'back passage intercourse' and finally the approved 
'rectal sex'.

'The department tried to keep her out of it as much as possible,' one 
civil servant remembers. 'At one point, after she had seen a draft, 
we got a message from Nigel Wicks [her Principal Private Secretary] 
which said, "She wants to know if they have to go in the newspapers." 
We asked him where else they were supposed to go. He said, "She was 
wondering about lavatory walls."'

There was no mention of the words 'condom' or 'rubber', both of which 
were considered too explicit. Instead, use of a 'sheath' was advised, 
a word that many people cruising the clubs had never heard before. 
Even Norman Fowler would soon acknowledge that the advertisements had 
little effect. One survey of 300 people at Southampton General Hospi-
tal suggested they may have been damaging: before the campaign, 5 per 
cent thought there was a vaccine against Aids; after it, 10 per cent 
did. Before, 10 per cent believed the infection could be spread by 
sharing eating and drinking utensils - this had risen to 14 per cent.

And so a bigger, brasher new GBP20m campaign was announced, and John 
Hurt's agent was called about availability. Now, fear was the key. 
'There is now a dreadful disease,' Hurt narrated against a backdrop 
of icebergs, tombstones and exploding mountains. 'It is a danger to 
us all. Anyone can catch it through sex with an infected person. You 
can't always tell if someone is infected. You should protect yourself 
against it. Don't die of ignorance.' The final frame was of a tomb-
stone with 'Aids' chiselled on it, an image which graced the front of 
another unprecedented public education campaign: a leaflet dropped 
through every letterbox in the country. The wording again caused 
sleepless nights. In the hope of not offending the elderly, there was 
talk of withholding the leaflets from anyone whose first name was 
Gladys, Albert or Daisy.

In this way, the United Kingdom went from a country, which publicly 
talked about Aids very little to one which could talk about nothing 
else. The late newspaper columnist Peter Jenkins wrote of one meeting 
with the Cabinet Secretary Robert Armstrong at which 'anal sex was 
mentioned during the avocado, buggery in Her Majesty's prisons as we 
ate our beef'. His colleagues predicted doom: 'Aids: The New Holo-
caust' ran a headline in The Sunday Telegraph.

The projections of Aids death multiplied each week; towards the end 
of 1986 it was reported that there were already more than 100,000 
people infected with HIV who didn't know it. New advertisements soon 
appeared with a slightly lighter touch: in one, the word 'Aids' was 
gift-wrapped in festive paper, and beneath it ran the words 'How many 
people will get it for Christmas?' Another showed a T-shirt with 'Sex 
& Drugs & Rock'n'Roll' scrawled across it; beneath it was the message 
'At least rock'n'roll can't give you Aids.'

The campaigns were accompanied by a week of educational and Aids in-
fotainment programmes on television, during which anyone who was any-
one turned up to put condoms on cucumbers. In time, health educators 
did find a way to speak to those they most needed to reach. The words 
'arse' and 'cock' appeared in government-financed campaigns aimed di-
rectly at gay men. Even the general public would soon learn 'It only 
takes one prick to give you Aids.'

It is still impossible to gauge the effects of this unprecedented 
care-a-thon on the sexual behaviour of a nation. The first adverts 
are principally remembered for causing panic and confusion, but it is 
agreed that even the most cautious, nervous education was better than 
doing nothing. Another question is: what was happening to the people 
for whom the campaigns had already come too late?

Guardian Unlimited c Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001 


AIDS: The first 20 years (part two) 

Special report: Aids
03.06.01: Britain braced for an AIDS explosion

Simon Garfield
Sunday June 3, 2001
The Observer

Part two: The Present

5 The escapologist 

Above all else, Tony Whitehead knows one thing for certain: he should 
be dead by now. Whitehead is 47, still handsome with silvery hair, 
not as agile as he was. He was diagnosed HIV positive in 1984, as 
soon as the first primitive test became available. 'I did have a real 
sense of foreboding,' he says. 'It was often a strong personal sense 
of foreboding, which is why I was so strongly motivated to do some-
thing with the Trust. I would have felt terrible if I had the oppor-
tunity to do something and hadn't. But it wasn't all altruism: being 
at the forefront benefited me enormously. I knew all the doctors and 
exactly what was happening. With Aids, as in so much else, informa-
tion is power.'

He is sitting in the bright flat near Olympia he shares with a long-
term partner, also infected. His eyesight is poor, and he jokes of 
how he has a magnifying glass stuck down the side of every chair. He 
looks back with horror and wonder: 'Quite how everyone's life would 
change was impossible to foresee, not least how our lives would be 
suddenly defined in terms of medicines and hospital appointments.' A 
great many of his friends died in the late 80s and early 90s. He is 
the only person he knows to have had the virus for so many years.

His first symptom of Aids showed itself in 1993 - a purple mark on 
his chest. 'I had lived with the thought that I would develop Aids 
for so long that it didn't worry me at all.' In April 1994 he went 
hiking and canoeing in Zimbabwe, but it was when he returned that he 
noticed something unusual.

'I know a lot about Aids,' he remembers thinking, 'but what was hap-
pening to me was like nothing I had ever heard of. I was finding ter-
rible weakness in my legs, and losing my balance. I got down in a 
crouch and couldn't get up. I rapidly got worse.'

This was followed by chest pains and high fevers and frequent hospi-
talisation. He lost the sight in his left eye, and the peripheral vi-
sion from his right. He received injections directly into his eye, 
which he says made it look like a piece of steak.

Drugs didn't seem to help much. There had been some improvements in 
treatment since the first toxic Aids drug AZT had emerged with some 
fanfare in 1987, but their efficacy was usually modest and their 
side-effects often severe (AZT has been discredited as an effective 
sole treatment, although it is generally effective in preventing the 
transmission of HIV from mother to baby). Tony Whitehead took AZT in 
combination with 3TC, both drugs acting as dummy building blocks that 
disrupted the construction of infected DNA. But his immune system 
failed to respond. His count of CD4 T-cells - the white blood cells 
that play a key part in the orchestration of the body's immune sys-
tem, and which in a healthy person stands at between 500 and 1,200 - 
had fallen to zero. He was, he believes, very close to death. But 
then something came along that has transformed the whole story of 
Aids in the developed world.

In 1996, Whitehead was one of the first to try what would become a 
revolutionary new treatment. He was given a new drug, called a prote-
ase inhibitor, to be taken alongside his other pills. This drug, 
indinavir, worked against HIV in a different way to the older anti-
retroviral treatment, attacking another, later stage of HIV reproduc-
tion, essentially blocking any virus that escaped the attentions of 
the earlier drugs. It took a few weeks for this new combination ther-
apy to take effect, but then the improvement was dramatic; his CD4 
cell count recovered, it became possible to consider resuming a nor-
mal life. He was already feeling better when the trial results of 
this new treatment were announced to thunderous applause at the In-
ternational Aids Conference in Vancouver in July 1996. This was 
clearly the breakthrough that everyone concerned with Aids had been 
waiting for; within months, the death toll began to fall dramati-

'Oh, I think there's no question that they saved my life,' Tony 
Whitehead says. When I first visited him at the beginning of 1997, he 
was taking 17 different pills per day, and there was a strict regime 
of compliance. There were also other pills to alleviate the side-
effects of drowsiness and nausea, and he was unable to eat anything 
containing fat two hours before or one hour after he had taken them.

Today, this burden has decreased and his drugs have changed. The 
indinavir began going wrong after 18 months, so his doctors augmented 
it with an additional fourth drug. 'Within a few weeks, everything 
was going haywire. The blood results were terrible, my blood was like 
goose fat or something, and I was getting chest pains.' 

But then a new successful combination was found - d4T, 3TC and dmp266 
(efavirenz) - and his CD4 count went back to 600. He now takes seven 
pills - two at 9am and five at 9pm. 'The ones I take at night have 
given some people some very wild dreams,' he says. 'But my dreams 
have only been pleasant - flying over islands, swimming with fishes.'

Recently, Whitehead's doctors at the Chelsea and Westminster detected 
gentle signs that he may be becoming resistant to efavirenz, but this 
is something he takes in his stride. Soon, he hopes, there will be 
something else to replace it.

He says he manages all right on income support and disability allow-
ance. 'I try to accentuate the positive, because I remember what 
things were like before. Now we get out and about; we have lunch out 
sometimes; I did a Spanish A level last year - didn't do very well, 
but I passed. But having said that, this isn't how I wanted to be. 
I'd have liked to have gone to work and pursued a career and earned a 
good living and all those things that most people are able to do.'

Whitehead maintains contact with the Terrence Higgins Trust, the or-
ganisation he once used to run. Later this month he plans to attend a 
fundraising dinner at the Hilton, and he'll work his table and tell 
his story. 'They don't wheel me out very often,' he says. 'A lot of 
people don't know who I am now.'

Across London, in a garden heady with flowers, a woman called Caro-
line Guinness is also on efavirenz, and it's been a similarly event-
ful journey to the drug. She tested positive in 1986 after sleeping 
with a bisexual man, but remained healthy for a prolonged period. She 
worked in music management and films, and helped organise the first 
big Aids fundraising concert at Wembley Arena in 1987: Holly Johnson, 
Boy George, Jimmy Somerville. Elton John sang 'Will You Still Love Me 

She became ill in 1995. There was muscle wasting, chronic fatigue, 
night sweats, hair loss. She then contracted pneumonia, and e-coli 
septicaemia 'which just about finished me off'. She had been resis-
tant to taking drugs, but now had no choice; even before the triple-
combination breakthrough with protease inhibitors, her dual combina-
tion of d4T and 3TC worked well, at least for a while.

'After 18 months I began to get lipodystrophy, that strange condition 
where all the fat on your body gets redistributed - from your bum and 
legs and arms it all goes to your stomach and breasts. It's a weird 
thing, because you feel very well but you look like someone suffering 
from starvation.'

Many other people presented with this, a side effect from one of the 
drugs. Her new cocktail seems to be working better, although she is 
aware of reports that indicate long-term toxicity. She has a teenage 
daughter who has not contracted the virus, and who has invited her to 
address her A level classmates about her life. Her mother has given 
these types of talks before, often to medical students. 'I give them 
advice about how people with HIV like to be treated,' she says. 'I 
tell them there is still plenty of bigotry and racism, and explain 
that if they come across as an understanding person they're far more 
likely to be told the truth. Then I talk about my story, which now 
encompasses 15 years, and so takes quite a while.'

The first question the students always ask her is about relation-
ships. 'Recently my husband has come along, so I tend to point him 
out. Life does go on. But then I tell them that I still can't get a 

6 The new world 

The chief executive of the Terrence Higgins Trust is being asked to 
do something he doesn't get asked to do very often: to reflect on a 
British success story. The new drugs have meant that Nick Partridge 
has not attended a funeral for almost two years, whereas once he went 
many times a month. But beyond the new treatments, there are other 
reasons why he has had to reconsider how his charity provides its 
services, other peculiarities of the British Aids epidemic that en-
sured we have not seen his worst fears realised.

'We had some advantages. We had a shared language with the country 
that was most immediately affected; there were very close links in 
both the gay community and the medical community between the UK and 
the United States. And the GUM [STD] clinic network was being well 
used by those gay men who were most likely to become infected, so 
there was one healthy and immediate link between the medical commu-
nity and gay men.' There are others: the appointment of Sir Donald 
Acheson as Chief Medical Officer, a forceful, diplomatic man with a 
good grounding in epidemiology; the implementation of needle-exchange 
programmes for drug users; the impact of a trip that Sir Norman 
Fowler took to San Francisco in 1986, where the scales fell from his 

Partridge observes that the impact of HIV has coloured many aspects 
of British society in unexpected ways. It has changed the way we talk 
about sex, the way patients interact with their doctors, the way 
treatment activists interact with drugs companies. It has increased 
the visibility of gay men. 'There is a huge difference between [Lon-
don's] Old Compton Street or [Manchester's] Canal Street then and 
now,' he says. 'In 1982 there was not a single gay bar which didn't 
have smoked or blacked-out windows.'

Last October, the Terrence Higgins Trust became Terrence Higgins 
Trust/Lighthouse, the product of a merger with the west London hos-
pice and treatment centre. In recent months the Trust has also nego-
tiated mergers with 10 other Aids charities, another indication of 
the changing priorities in the wake of combination therapy. One of 
Partridge's tasks is to help people re-engage with society and work 
again. 'To see a 70 per cent drop in the number of people dying in a 
two-year period was wonderful,' he says, 'but it doesn't mean that 
the personal impact of the epidemic has changed for that many peo-
ple.' Those who benefit have had a large impact on drug costs in the 
NHS - up to GBP10,000 per patient per year - which has squeezed budg-
ets for long-term support in the home and future prevention cam-
paigns. While care in London has been generally good, the regional 
picture has been far more patchy.

Partridge says he has several significant challenges. He hopes to de-
velop better services for Africans with HIV in the UK and promote 
health campaigns among other communities at risk. And he must try to 
engage younger gay men again. 'If you were 18 now you'd have been 
about four when the icebergs were on telly,' he says. Despite the vo-
ciferous efforts of several gay activist groups, many now view Aids 
as an old man's affliction. Recently there has been an increase in 
the number of sexually transmitted diseases, which suggests a lack of 
condom use. 

There is also the risk of being infected with a new drug-resistant 
strain of HIV. 'We have all the elements for a potential second wave 
of an epidemic,' Partridge believes. 'The lesson from abroad is that 
if you do nothing, HIV spreads with remarkable speed. You only have 
to look at Africa to be absolutely convinced that you can't walk away 
from Aids work, because it will come back to haunt you in the most 
terrible of ways.'

There is another problem: most people just don't care much any more. 
Despite the record increase in HIV infections last year (and the 493 
new reports in the first three months of 2001), Aids is widely seen 
as yesterday's disease; red ribbons aren't much of a fashion acces-
sory these days. Accordingly, public fundraising is very difficult. 
As with most causes, it is hard to overestimate the continued impor-
tance of celebrity. The Terrence Higgins Trust acknowledges that even 
the presence of Tamara Beckwith rattling a bucket in Selfridges makes 
people more likely to donate. It is entirely possible that most peo-
ple's understanding of the effects of Aids comes not from information 
campaigns, but from the HIV storylines in soap operas and the deaths 
of famous people. In America, the message hit home with Rock Hudson; 
in the UK it was Freddie Mercury. Princess Diana also made a differ-
ence - her bedside vigils, her handshakes with Aids patients, the 
message that Aids was a virus not a crime. Those who raise money for 
Aids say that her death robbed them of an ambassador who has yet to 
be replaced. Elton John? Some generous and invaluable work, quite 
clearly, but as yet he is still not a member of the royal family.

Five days after the Danny La Rue extravaganza, the events manager at 
Crusaid was fielding calls about the Barbra Streisand film that eve-
ning at Planet Hollywood. 'I could have charged twice as much,' says 
Michael Berg. 'It sold out within 24 hours and people have been going 

Since its formation in 1986, Crusaid has raised GBP19m, distributed 
to such diverse organisations as Positively Women, the Uganda Youth 
Support Unit and the African Church Leader's Programme. On Michael 
Berg's walls are the souvenirs of some recent events: premieres of 
the big musicals, an audience with the writer Armistead Maupin, ce-
lebrity auctions where you can buy something unusual from Graham Nor-
ton. Last November, bucket collections by African performers at the 
end of The Lion King raised GBP 36,000.

'Last year we worked hard and we did OK,' Berg says, 'but the climate 
has changed. The days when people would come to any event just be-
cause it was Aids have long gone. You have to offer people something 
they really want.' He estimates that the Danny La Rue show will raise 
in excess GBP 5,000.

Berg mentions a troubling Mori poll conducted at the end of last 
year. Among other things, this asked members of the public two ques-
tions: would you give time or money to cancer charities? Eighty-four 
per cent said Yes. Would you give time or money to an Aids or HIV 
charity? Eighty-six per cent said No, under no circumstances.

Why does he think this is?

'Who knows? I guess people think it's over.'

7 The view from Barts 

At the end of May 2001, Tony Pinching can be found in the same office 
he worked in when the epidemic was young, but the name of his em-
ployer seems to have changed every fortnight. In this feverish cli-
mate of merger and management restructure, he is now Professor of Im-
munology at St Bartholomew's and the Royal London School of Medicine 
and Dentistry, Queen Mary.

For Pinching, well versed in the extensive biography of disease, the 
Aids epidemic is still young, two decades after it was first ob-
served. But the advances have been considerable. 'If you look at it 
in terms of the stick of rock of medical history, the drugs came in-
credibly fast,' he says. 'You just don't normally get from the dis-
covery of a disease to a transforming treatment in a period of 15 
years. Incredibly slow, of course, for the people in the first waves 
of the epidemic, but in the wider context, it was remarkable. I think 
it justifies that early advocacy for putting considerable money into 
basic research.' Pinching is also more optimistic than he has been 
for years that the technical barriers to vaccine protection maybe 
surmountable, although a fully protective vaccine that all countries 
can afford is still many years off.

When he looks back to his first patients, he remembers learning vast 
amounts from them: 'It was clear that they were telling us things 
that were going to guide us for the next 20 years.' He would use this 
knowledge to inform his discussions with ministers and the Department 
of Health in the first tender steps towards the public information 
campaigns. Justifiably, he feels a sense of achievement. 'I think the 
approach that was followed in this country was broadly right and rea-
sonably accurate, although sustained intermittently. The flat-
earthers will say that the worst-case scenario would never have hap-
pened anyway, but I think the public health campaigns made a substan-
tive difference. If you look at some countries in southern Europe 
that did not engage in such sustained campaigns you can see that they 
got into a much worse epidemic. I think it's sad that we've never 
celebrated that, because the tenor of debate in this country is al-
ways so pervasively negative.' 

At the beginning of 1999, the UK had 16,468 cases of Aids, compared 
with 50,112 in France, 43,936 in Italy (mostly drug users) and 18,479 
in Germany. 

In the last few years Professor Pinching's caseload has changed. The 
majority of new infections is in African heterosexuals; we are palpa-
bly part of the epidemic that is happening in the rest of the world. 
'It's quite wrong to think that the real problem is over there, be-
cause it's over here, too,' he says. 'I feel that very strongly here 
in east London, where we see people presenting with late disease, the 
sort of stuff we saw right at the start.'

His African patients are a potent reminder: the drugs have come too 
late for many, and are unusable by others; for all the improvements 
in education, an incalculable number of people are not being reached; 
the UK epidemic has some way to run.

'The imperfections of human beings and the imperfections of knowledge 
are such that we will inevitably give HIV opportunities to escape,' 
Professor Pinching says. 'The question is, can we always stay ahead 
of it enough?' After 20 years, he reckons it is still too soon to 

* For a comprehensive guide to symptoms, treatments and further 
sources of information on HIV and Aids, go to 
The Terrence Higgins Trust/Lighthouse can be reached on 
Tel: +44-20-7831-0330.

Other useful links
NHS Direct Online HIV/Aids
British HIV Association 

Guardian Unlimited c Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001 

[ Reproduced under fair use by C. Labadie ]

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