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The Story Behind the Picture: How Princess Diana Changed the Public’s Perspective of HIV and AIDs

Princess Diana was often referred to as ‘The People’s Princess’ due to her extensive humanitarian work and her seemingly down-to-earth, caring and compassionate personality. In April, 1987, she opened up the first HIV/ AIDs unit in the UK, at London Middlesex Hospital, that exclusively cared for patients infected with the virus. During her visit, and, in front of the international media, Diana shook hands with a man suffering with the illness, doing so without gloves as a way to confidently and publicly demonstrate how HIV and AIDs cannot be transmitted by touch.

This single, seemingly unimportant gesture was hugely significant, as it coincided with the AIDs epidemic that spread through the UK and the USA in the 1980s. At the time, an estimated 7,500 people had been diagnosed with HIV in the UK and, although multiple public awareness campaigns had been launched, there was very little knowledge and understanding about the disease. Exacerbated by fear-mongering found in many tabloids and newspapers (specifically targeted towards the LGBT community by often referring to the AIDs epidemic as ‘the gay plague’), people grew fearful of the disease, and those living with HIV and Aids became highly stigmatised and isolated.

By shaking hands with an AIDs patient without wearing gloves, Princess Diana helped educate people at a time when rampant misinformation and fear had led many to believe that AIDs could be transmitted through handshakes and physical contact. John O’Reilly, a nurse working at the time in the recently opened ward at London Middlesex Hospital later told the BBC “if a royal was allowed to go and shake a patient’s hand, somebody at the bus stop or the supermarket could do the same. That really educated people.

This famous handshake may not seem as important now, when we have a much better understanding about HIV and AIDs, but at the time it was monumental. Princess Diana used her public platform to show compassion for people living with a highly stigmatised disease, and as a result helped change the public’s perspective of it.

Sofia C, Year 12

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