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Not dying of ignorance - 30 years on

Behavioural changes with HIV and AIDS

Pat PearsonThe sun shone every day in the 1980s. It’s true! Well, at least that’s how I remember it. Simple days. A car-load of mates in my battered Vauxhall Chevette, Depeche Mode on the tape player, heading into Southampton for a Wimpey burger.

It wasn’t all rosy though. AIDS scared the living daylights out of all of us. It’s difficult to imagine now, in this age of instant information, but what we knew then was pretty much informed by tabloid headlines. Ignorance about risk and transmission was deeply engrained.

2018 is the 30-year anniversary of a campaign that not only changed perceptions about HIV and AIDS, but also changed the way public health campaigns would work afterwards. The UK was one of the first countries to warn its population about the dangers of AIDS. It’s worth watching the advert Don’t Die of Ignorance if you haven’t seen it for a while. It’s gritty, even by today’s standards. John Hurt’s gravelly voice, the falling tombstone and the stark warning about the disease spreading. Now that really scared people. But it cut through the misinformation and guided them towards the facts.

When I arrived at the Department of Health as ministerial press officer seven years later, campaign collateral was everywhere. To have been involved was a badge of honour. It wasn’t spoken about much, but like old soldiers from a hard-fought campaign, no words were needed to recognise what was achieved.

The scale of the public health challenge was immense. It was also highly controversial, with Health Secretary Norman Fowler having to convince Cabinet colleagues about the need to talk explicitly about sex. Overcoming the depth of misinformation meant sending a leaflet to every house in the UK - 23 million in total. The advertising was broadcast repeatedly and discussions about sex became commonplace on prime-time television and radio, and in the national press - at a time when views in the newspapers carried genuine weight. The response from the public was, on the whole, positive, although there was predictable backlash from some commentators who accused the Government of spreading panic.

In 2013 Dr Sarah Graham from University of Leicester questioned whether there had been a behaviour change, particularly among the heterosexual community. However, rates of infection in the gay community dropped following the campaign. Of course, this was influenced by the subsequent work of advocacy groups. And EastEnders character Mark Fowler coming out as HIV positive had a massive impact, resulting in thousands of people being tested. But Don’t Die of Ignorance was the catalyst for that which followed.

Depeche Mode sang ‘everything counts in small amounts’. For thousands of people alive today, this public health campaign in no small way changed their lives.

Pat Pearson is managing director of healthcare at Firstlight

in association with


7th August 2017

From: Healthcare



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