In 1987, AIDS was a relatively new disease. People around the world were frightened; they were still unsure of how AIDS was transmitted from one person to another. People who did contract the human immunodeficiency virus — or HIV — invariably died.
Journalist Jim Bunn was working as a press officer at the World Health Organization in Geneva, Switzerland. It was his job to read all the speeches written for the WHO Director General, and make them sound more interesting.
One day he was reading a densely-written speech about the emerging AIDS epidemic. The text was difficult, and he recalls looking at his co-worker in frustration, and saying, "You know what? We need a day. We need a day that we can call World AIDS Day, or something like that." His co-worker looked up and said, "World AIDS Day, that's what we should call it!"
Bunn says the two of them were so excited, they ran down the hallway to the office of the Director General to tell him the idea.
Bunn says that at the time, many countries avoided talking about AIDS. For all kinds of political and economic reasons, countries around the world did not want to acknowledge the fact that they had a problem or that there was even the prospect of the problem.
Bunn says that's what made it so critical to have something called World AIDS Day.
"It was to put out — if you will — a big umbrella and put everybody into the tent, and say this is a problem that is worldwide," Bunn explains. With World AIDS Day, they could make the point that the virus knew no borders.
"We wanted to say to countries, 'if you don't have the signs of the epidemic in your country yet, you will. And you need to be aware of it and you need to be prepared for it.'"
Bunn and his colleagues at the WHO created a press kit to advertise the first World AIDS Day on December 1st, 1987. But they cast a wide net. They not only sent the kit to media outlets, but also to the community-based groups and non-governmental organizations that had sprung up to respond to AIDS.
"The idea was to suggest to these organizations, and churches, how you could bring attention to AIDS in your community," Bunn says. "Our hope was that this would become something that eventually the World Health Organization would have nothing to do with and it would take on its own life."
Bunn says it did just that. He points out that one of the most important things World AIDS Day accomplished was to raise public awareness of the disease. The event encouraged activists to put political pressure on governments to do something about it. It is now something that's acknowledged worldwide. Bunn says he thinks World AIDS Day helped to make that acknowledgement happen.
"People acknowledge in virtually every country of the world know that there is, in fact, a disease called AIDS and that it's there in their country," Bunn says. "And that's the first step. You can't address it unless you acknowledge that it's there."
This year, the twentieth anniversary of World AIDS Day, the epidemic has changed. With new medications reaching more people, AIDS is not the invariably fatal disease it once was.
But Bunn says an annual observance is still important. "It reminds people that this is a problem, it's a continuing problem, it's a problem that people need to pay attention to, it's a problem that requires care and treatment of those people who are sick. And it also requires care and attention to those people who are at risk because they engage in behaviors that put them at risk of what can be a deadly disease."