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AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome) is a disease of the human immune system. It reduces the body's ability to fight infection, to the extent that without treatment patients are likely to develop a variety of other diseases, generally proving fatal. There is no vaccine or cure, but anti-retroviral treatment can now keep patients healthy for many years, although not without side effects.


In 1981 it was noticed that a number of gay men in USA were getting a very rare disease called Kaposi's sarcoma. 88 cases had been reported over 18 months, January 1981-summer 1982 [1]. When two gay men died in the UK of an immune system breakdown their deaths were linked to the same disease found in the USA. For a while the disease was known as Gay Compromise Syndrome [2]. The disease was subsequently referred to as "GRID" (gay-related immunodeficiency). The term AIDS was adopted when it became clear that the disease was not restricted to gay men. Terry Higgins was one of the first people in the UK to die of AIDS (in 1982), leading to the setting up of the Terrence Higgins Trust. During the 1980s it became clear that a virus was responsible for AIDS, and in 1986 it was given the name HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus).

In 1986 it was estimated that half of the heroin addicts in Edinburgh were infected with HIV [3]. It was also estimated that there were 30,000 people infected with HIV throughout the UK by the end of 1986 [4].

Terry Madeley was one of the first people with AIDS in the UK to talk openly about his disease on television. 'Viewers were moved by his positive attitude, his honesty and his irrepressible humour, despite the fact he faced a potentially terrifying death' [5]. He died in 1987. Remember Terry was broadcast on BBC 2 on 17 Dec 1987.

Over the next few years many people died from AIDS-related infections (see Category:AIDS-related deaths for a few of the more well known UK people); the number reduced sharply with the arrival of new treatments from around 1995.

A useful collection of videos relating to AIDS has been compiled by Martin Weaver and is available on You Tube [6].

A display of photos taken in the first dedicated AIDS ward in the Middlesex Hospital went on display in 2023 in the Fitzrovia Chapel [7]. From February 2023 the London Metropolitan Archives announced that 'The largest collection of filmed interviews ever compiled about the HIV/AIDS pandemic of the 1980s and ‘90s in the UK will be available for public access from this month' [8].


In February 1987 the UK government launched a massive campaign to educate the public about the dangers of AIDS. 23 million leaflet 'Don't Die of Ignorance' were delivered to UK households [9].

Despite the availability (at least in more affluent societies such as the UK) of anti-retroviral drugs, AIDS remains a serious and life-altering condition, and safer sex, particularly the use of condoms, is seen as extremely important.


  1. Gay News issue 245 22 July 1982 'Cancer, poppers and gay men' Report by Richard B Fisher
  2. Although neither men in the UK appeared to have Kaposi's sarcoma. Gay News issue 246 August 5 1982 'Second UK gay compromise death'. The Nursing Mirror was still using the term Gay Compromise Syndrome in March 1983, as reported in Gay News issue 262 March 31 1983.
  3. This Week: Aids: The Last Chance Part 1 Thames TV documentary broadcast 1986 available on BFI free view
  4. Illustrated London News 1 December 1986
  5. Accessed 20 Jan 2021.
  6. AIDS Archive (accessed 2 January 2022)
  7. Photographing love and loss in the UK's first Aids ward
  9. Channel 4 documentary 'Epidemic: When Britain Fought Aids' (2017)