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'We Need a Day.' Meet the Man Who Helped Create World AIDS Day

From TIME - November 30, 2017

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 Administrations headquarters to pressure the agency to hurry up its notoriously slow drug-approval process, and patients were desperate for some sort of magic bulletor 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 thats 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 nations 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 cant 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 werent at risk?

When I was a journalist, what wed 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, its not limited to IV drug users, this is a sexually transmitted disease. One of the things we didnt do, we didnt talk about what [the interviewees] sexual preference was. We talked about what their symptoms were. We talked about what it was like to live with this disease.

When Rock Hudsons 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 citys health department.

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