World AIDS Day 2018: When a friend has AIDS

by John Betts, RPS Museum, Keeper of the Museum Collections

The history of pharmacy is usually thought of in terms of drug development and its ability to transform patient’s lives. Rarely do museums have an object in their collection that communicates what it was like to live with a life-threatening illness before there were any effective treatments.

The RPS Museum has a leaflet published by GMHC (Gay Men’s Health Crisis) in 1984, at the beginning of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, which does just that.

When A Friend Has AIDS provides advice to the friends of people living with AIDS on how they can offer them support.

Written with a great deal of compassion, it gives a moving insight into what living with HIV/AIDS was like at this time, from both the patient’s and friend’s point of view. Reading it never fails to move me to tears.

It is important to remember that at this time of the HIV/AIDS crisis there were no effective treatments available. In addition, there was a great deal of stigma and misinformation regarding HIV/AIDS. This led to many people living with the condition being isolated and discriminated against.

The beginning of the leaflet highlights the fact that AIDS was different from many other serious illnesses and posed new challenges:

People who are in the prime of their life have become ill, and their prospects for a long life have been seriously affected. Their suffering and fear is shared by the people close to them.


Many of the points cover offering practical support such as helping with household chores, transportation or financial matters. However, it also stresses the importance of still including a person with AIDS in any decision making and not denying them the chance to do tasks that they are still capable of doing:

He’s been robbed of so many things and has lost control over many aspects of his life. Don’t deny him a chance to make decisions…’ or ‘… take away chores he can still do. He’s already lost enough.’

Emotional support

Other points give advice on ways to provide emotional support, including:

Don’t avoid him. Be there – it instills hope. Be the friend, the loved one you’ve always been, especially now when it is most important.

Weep with him when he weeps. Laugh when he laughs. Don’t be afraid to share these intimate experiences. They can enrich you both.

Stigma and shame

Some of the advice touches on the stigma people living with AIDS often faced at this time, including misinformation regarding how it could be transmitted:

Touch him. A simple squeeze of the hand or hug can let him know that you still care. (Don’t be afraid… You can not simply catch AIDS from touching.)

For me the most moving piece of advice touches on the shame that many gay men felt regarding their illness due to the homophobic attitudes of the time:

Don’t permit him to blame himself for his illness. Being gay didn’t give him AIDS. Remind him that lifestyles don’t cause diseases, germs do. Help him through this one. It may be especially hard for him.

Thankfully huge progress has been made since the beginning of the epidemic, both in terms of attitudes to people living with HIV/AIDS and access to effective medications.

On this World AIDS Day please remember not only the people around the world living with HIV/AIDS today, but also the individuals who didn’t live long enough to benefit from the first effective anti-retroviral drugs becoming available in 1997.

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