What was the root cause of AIDS

1980s

Magdalena Beljan

To person

Dr., born 1981; Research assistant at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development, research area "History of Emotions", Lentzeallee 94, 14195 Berlin. [email protected]

In the summer of 1981, the United States health authorities reported a mysterious illness. Five young men who appeared perfectly healthy suddenly suffered from a combination of severe fungal infections and pneumonia - two of them died. And more and more people became ill, especially in big cities like New York and San Francisco. The cause was unknown. Noticeable were the dark spots on the skin of those affected, Kaposi's syndrome, and the fact that most of those affected were young and gay. The term "Gay-Related Immune Deficiency" soon haunted the US press. But increasingly, albeit less severely, people who did not fit into the pattern were also affected. In 1982 doctors finally suggested the name under which the disease would then become famous: "AIDS" - as an abbreviation for "Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome", translated: "Acquired immune deficiency". In the same year, the first cases were observed in the Federal Republic, especially among gay men in large cities. "Der Spiegel" reported on the then unnamed "shock from over there": "A number of mysterious, often fatal diseases afflict America's homosexuals. Now the first cases have been observed in Europe." [1] More than 130 deaths have meanwhile been observed in Europe given to the USA, 200 more are ill. Tens of thousands would probably have been infected.

The article was only the first impetus for a veritable flood of media reports on AIDS. Hardly any other disease was so present in the media of the western industrialized nations in the 1980s. Even today there is general talk of the "AIDS fear" of that time. Fear has played an important role in the stories of AIDS. However, instead of assuming that everyone was afraid of this disease, it is more informative to look at when and by whom fear of what was articulated, or more generally: in which context and for what purpose feelings were discussed. The problem with this narrative of a general "AIDS hysteria" is that it is assumed that dealing with AIDS was highly emotional and irrational in the first few years, but that the increasing rational management of risk has "de-emotionalized" dealing with the disease. Taking a closer look at the emotional history of AIDS, it can be said that it is a short circuit to think that emotions would have played less and less of a role the stronger the (state) policy reacted to AIDS and the problems associated with it.

Against this, for example, the fact that in many early press reports on AIDS the absence of fear was a big topic: People who did not seem to be afraid of AIDS were assumed to be irrational and risky. In later reports, in which those affected had their own say, the fear of social stigmatization and exclusion was in the foreground (I will illustrate this primarily using the example of the news magazine "Der Spiegel").

For the mobilization and institutionalization of facilities such as the German AIDS Help (DAH), fear was less an issue than feelings such as sadness, anger and despair. Not only caring for sick and infected people and their feelings, but also those of the employees were part of the tasks of the AIDS organizations. So it was important for them to find the "right" way to deal with grief over the death of those affected.

But emotions were also an important element of state AIDS policy. So the "narrative of concern" became more and more important and a supporting building block. Campaigns of the Federal Center for Health Education (BZgA), which started in 1987, like the DAH, did not rely on shock effects or the creation of fear of an illness from the start, but on the fact that everyone should feel affected by the risk of infection, to protect yourself and others from it.