May 28, 2024

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

An advertisement warning about the dangers of multiple partners and the importance of protection against AIDS by NGO-AIDS Cell, Centre for Community Medicine, AIIMS.

An advertisement warning about the dangers of multiple partners and the importance of protection against AIDS by NGO-AIDS Cell, Centre for Community Medicine, AIIMS. | Courtesy of the Wellcome Collection - Colour lithograph by Unesco/Aidthi Workshop, March 1995.

The unknown story: The public health campaigns India used to target one of history’s extraordinary pandemics

Vaishnavi gives us an insightful analysis into how awareness of the AIDS pandemic and crucial precautionary measures were spread through public health campaigns in India.

Vaishnavi Mohan
1st December 2021 – World AIDS Day

Through our own experience of living through pandemic for the past two years, we often try to compare our situation with previous pandemics.

One of the most widely spread pandemics was HIV/AIDS.

Since the 1980s, AIDS has affected millions of people across the world. The AIDS pandemic was an incredibly sensationalised and politicised phenomenon which changed the way medical policy was devised by governments in many countries. The stigma associated with homosexuality played a crucial role in ensuring AIDS has been such a widely discussed pandemic.

While the most popular public health campaigns about AIDS have been focused in the Global West, it is enlightening to understand how it was approached in other parts of the world too.

In India specifically, AIDS was first detected in 1986, mostly among sex workers. This resulted in the government implementing health measures to screen potential patients. Following this, in 1992, the National AIDS Control Organisation was set up by India’s Ministry of Health.

Even though AIDS surfaced in India in the mid-1980s, most of the campaign was conducted in the mid-1990s. Compared to how AIDS was dealt with in many Western countries, India was more proactive in controlling the epidemic. In the early 1990s, when the first cases of AIDS were found, the National AIDS Research Institute was founded to do independent research on the disease and control it. NARI conducted clinical trials and received foreign funding for research on AIDS.

Campaigns were utilised all over India not only to improve public communication about AIDS but to increase awareness. The AIDS awareness campaign, launched by AIIMS (All India Institute of Medical Science) in collaboration with an NGO named AIDTHI, was extremely informative and conveyed information which would be considered taboo at the time. Alongside AIIMS, various NGOs, and the National AIDS Control Organisation organised public health campaigns to promote AIDS awareness and safe sex practices.

I have decided to dissect the crucial messages of the below posters to shed light on such campaigns. These posters were published to promote AIDS awareness in Delhi and Bihar, India, by AIDTHI in collaboration with AIIMS. Based on the language, the people’s attire and where the posters are set to indicate that it was targeting people in rural India. Posters like these would have been a very approachable form of communication to raise awareness about AIDS. With short and concise captions and imagery, they easily conveyed the different causes of AIDS and necessary precautions.

In this poster (Left), we can see a woman handing a condom to the man, which indicates that the woman is taking the initiative to partake in safe sexual intercourse. This poster not only makes a statement about how unsafe sex can spread AIDS but also shows the woman giving the condom to the man, which is surprising because women in rural households were not allowed great freedom of choice in their households. In these rural settings, the norm would have been that the husband had multiple sexual partners and thus would be likely to contract AIDS, return home and transmit the disease to his wife (as shown in other posters created for the campaign). Consequently, there was a risk that AIDS could then be transferred to the couples’ children. This was a common thread observed among rural areas in India.

Image, left: Advertisement for Nirodh condoms to promote safe-sex and AIDS prevention | Courtesy of the Wellcome Collection – NGO-AIDS Cell, Centre for Community Medicine, AIIMS. Colour lithograph for Unesco/Aidthi Workshop, March 1995. License.

This poster (Right) is of a slightly different nature. It is oriented more towards communicating that AIDS can affect anyone, irrespective of gender, social status, caste or religion. The poster depicts 7 people who appear to be from different backgrounds. The caption reads that people with AIDS are difficult to identify; a person with AIDS may be among us.

Image, right: AIDS prevention advertisement by NGO-AIDS Cell, Centre for Community Medicine, AIIMS, representing difficulties of recognising someone who has AIDS. | Courtesy of the Wellcome collection – Colour lithograph by Unesco/Aidthi Workshop, March 1995. License.

Since homosexuality was a criminal act in India until a few years ago, it could be interesting to consider whether the public health campaign would have been this active if the disease was initially found among homosexual men. Even though prostitution was also illegal in India, there was less stigma attached to this act than being homosexual. Given that homosexuality was a criminal act until 2018, if the disease presented itself among homosexual men first, would the government take any measures to find a cure or communicate about the disease to the public?

Even though AIDS is a medical issue, it is a significantly stigmatised disease. These posters help us to understand how different social sections of the world approached such a global health issue, and to identify the social, political, and economic reasons for the change of approach. Understanding how the AIDS pandemic was communicated and framed in a social context is essential, especially considering this same understanding should be crucially applied to our current pandemic.

View the cover image for this Feature on the Wellcome Collection website here
View the first image within this Feature on the Wellcome Collection website here, and the second image here

Vaishnavi Mohan is a sub-editor for I,Science, and is currently completing her Masters in Science Communication here at Imperial College London. After taking History and Philosophy of Science at UCL, she has an interest in the history of medicine as well as how science and culture intersect