When the first World AIDS Day was launched in 1988 by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations, the disease had been identified only four years prior. As TIME reported that year, of the 65,780 cases reported in the U.S. since June 1981, 37,195 of those patients had passed away. As it continued to spread, more than 1,000 protesters seized the Food and Drug Administration’s headquarters to pressure the agency to hurry up its notoriously slow drug-approval process, and patients were desperate for some sort of magic bullet — or at the very least a drug that would provide a lifeline.
But there was one medicine that did not need government approval: information.
At least that’s how experts like Jim Bunn saw things at the time. Bunn came up with the idea for World AIDS Day with Thomas Netter while they were working as public information officers for WHO. Bunn, who had previously been the nation’s first full-time television AIDS reporter, knew that knowledge about HIV and AIDS would help people protect themselves. But conveying that information was easier said than done, especially as misinformation, prejudice and fear were passed along just as quickly. The awareness day was one part of a solution to that problem.
In the walk-up to World AIDS Day, which falls on Friday, the Peabody and Emmy Award-winning journalist spoke to TIME about what it was like to track the AIDS epidemic, both as a journalist and a public health professional.
TIME: Were there any particular obstacles you encountered as a journalist, and then spokesman, on the AIDS beat in the 1980s?
BUNN: Back in that day, TV technicians were reticent, sometimes refused, to even put microphones on people with AIDS. I made a point in my stories of bringing a crew with me that had been educated about how the disease is transmitted, because I felt that it was incumbent on me to show them the utmost respect. These people were coming out at a time when the result of them being interviewed could get them fired, evicted, “out” them to their families and friends. The epidemic thrust people out of the closet because they were now sick and dying. So there was a tremendous amount of courage being displayed just by agreeing to talk to me.
When I was at WHO, for one of the largest single gatherings of health ministers in the history of the U.N., I was asked to put together a video on the epidemic that would empower ministers of health with info they could take back to their Prime Ministers and cabinets. The script I handed in to be translated had the phrase “gay or bisexual men,” but a Farsi translator said, “You can’t say this.” So I went back and rephrased it as “men who had anal sex with other men,” using a level of frankness I had not needed to use before.
How did you make the epidemic hit home for people who thought they weren’t at risk?
When I was a journalist, what we’d try to focus on, in addition to those whose stories we were telling particularly at that time, [was that] the virus is not limited to gay or bisexual men, it’s not limited to IV drug users, this is a sexually transmitted disease. One of the things we didn’t do, we didn’t talk about what [the interviewee’s] sexual preference was. We talked about what their symptoms were. We talked about what it was like to live with this disease.
When Rock Hudson‘s diagnosis became public, all of a sudden everyone got it. The business [side] at KPIX said, “Can you do a documentary?” So we put one together in four days with everything we had covered. Now our station was engaged, and we launched an AIDS education program with the San Francisco AIDS Foundation and the city’s health department.
Was there a particular patient who inspired you to keep working for the cause along the way?
Yes, yes. I’ll never forget Tom Wicker — who reached out to me saying he had been denied Social Security benefits because he had AIDS — or Bobby Reynolds, a very soft spoken lineman for a phone company who climbed up telephone poles for a living. He was one of the leading voices, and I got to see him in the hospital before he died. During the AIDS epidemic, every single person you covered died for the reason you were covering them. There was nothing before then, outside of combat, with anything even close to that kind of calculus.
When I was working for the WHO, I was on a video shoot at the Mall in Washington when the AIDS quilt was on display. Each [square] is made by a family member with artifacts from that [victim’s] life. As I’m walking around, I come across one for a childhood friend from Larchmont, N.Y. To see that — it was just crushing. I fell to my knees and sobbed. It’s one thing to meet someone who has AIDS. It’s entirely different when someone you know gets it.
How did you come up with the idea for World AIDS Day?
One day, [my colleague] Tom Netter was sitting in our offices and reading excerpts of a speech given by the WHO-Director General, Dr. Mahler, describing in typical bureaucratese the need for global mobilization and recognition so that the pandemic can be responded to in the most efficacious and most cost-effective ways. And I said, “Oh, we need a day, like Cold Turkey Day.” We looked at each other — it was a cinematic moment — and then jumped up out of our chairs and started brainstorming on whiteboards, activities, strategies, the date. Well, the date was easy. It’s still a little dead spot today in the editorial calendar. I felt there was a window between Black Friday stories and holiday stories. If you put something up there for editors to cover, they’d welcome a new story. That’s part of what has kept it alive.
Things have changed so much since then, and the disease is no longer a death sentence. Do we still need World AIDS Day today?
I think so, for the following reasons: About two years ago I was the keynote speaker at a World AIDS Day observance at Duke, and this fellow came up to me and said, “I want to thank you.” He was an African-American man who had been in the closet until his church had put on a World AIDS Day. Once people were responding to the religious requisite of caring for people who are sick and dying, he felt like his congregation had come far enough that he came out to this pastor.
There are still people today who are newly infected. There are people today who engage in high-risk behavior. And without the horrible experience of seeing your peers dropping dead around you, it’s not going to get your attention the way it did to those people back then.