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The Grim Reaper died in the 80s – time for a new approach to HIV prevention

The Grim Reaper television commercial is infamous in Australia. Reminiscent of B-grade gothic horror flicks, the cloaked reaper stands in a foggy bowling alley poised to strike down a group of deadpan…

The Grim Reaper has come to symbolise HIV/AIDS in Australia. minifig

The Grim Reaper television commercial is infamous in Australia. Reminiscent of B-grade gothic horror flicks, the cloaked reaper stands in a foggy bowling alley poised to strike down a group of deadpan, but “ordinary” looking, people. As the people are bowled down, a voice booms, “at first only gays and IV drug users were being killed by AIDS, but now we know every one of us could be devastated by it”.

The Grim Reaper appeared on Australian television in April 1987. It was a phenomenal marketing success. Some 25 years on, just about everyone who saw it remembers it. In my mind, the Grim Reaper was part of pre-bedtime viewing throughout my childhood. In reality, the ad ran for less than three weeks. I probably watched it only a handful of times.

The Grim Reaper has come to symbolise HIV/AIDS in Australia. It captured the fear and uncertainty of a time when people were not sure what would happen with this virus. It wasn’t clear how large the epidemic might grow in Australia; there was certainly no sign of a cure and available treatments at the time were not particularly effective.

The Grim Reaper campaign was not without controversy. In some communities, gay men came to be associated with the Grim Reaper and were seen as a threat to the community, rather than being victims of the disease.

The campaign was immensely effective at drawing attention to HIV/AIDS. Politically this was important. The Commonwealth government had directed a lot of funds toward HIV prevention and, although the Grim Reaper was not devised as a political tool, the response to it justified this spending.

The Queensland government has decided to resurrect the Grim Reaper imagery in a soon-to-be-screened television campaign designed to inform Queenslanders that HIV infection rates are again on the rise. The ad features an actor dressed as the Grim Reaper costume while the voice-over laments, “we shouldn’t be having this conversation”.

The Annual Surveillance Report indicates that in 2010 Queensland recorded its highest ever rate of new HIV infections, having more than doubled in the past decade, from 2.8 per 100,000 people in 2001 to 5.4 in 2010.

The Queensland government has responded to this with a new HIV strategy, beginning with the Reaper ad. But at the same time, it has withdrawn funding from the Queensland Association for Healthy Communities (QAHC, the former Queensland AIDS Council) – the very organisation that leads HIV prevention targeting gay men in Queensland.

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In Australia, the vast majority of HIV transmission occurs between men who have sex with men. This has always been the case. While heterosexual transmission accounts for several hundred new diagnoses each year, a large proportion of these occur among people who have come to Australia from high-prevalence countries, or whose partner does.

A population-based HIV prevention campaign makes no sense if the flip side includes withdrawing funding to the organisation that targets people most at risk.

The government argues that de-funding QAHC was a response to rising HIV rates — evidence of QAHC’s lack of effectiveness — not an anti-gay agenda. But it would be a concern if HIV prevention in Queensland was to become more conservative, with little acknowledgement of the needs or interests of gay men.

Australia is known as a world leader in HIV prevention largely because the federal government at the time had the foresight to see that community-led organisations such as QAHC were best placed to deliver targeted HIV prevention campaigns to the communities most at risk.

Alongside this, state and federal governments (for the most part) have resisted heavy censoring of safer-sex messages. Health educators have been able to talk openly about sex and produce sex-positive education campaigns. This has been more effective — particularly with lesbian and gay communities — than conservative or morally-driven strategies, such as abstinence education.

The Grim Reaper campaign worked at the time because of its shock value, and because it was accompanied by funding for targeted, community-led prevention campaigns.

The recent rise in HIV rates has occurred in a very different context. A complex combination of issues are contributing to increasing HIV infections, including “safe-sex fatigue” or people’s lowered perception of “risk” in an era where anti-viral treatments are so effective.

The Queensland government may have some success in putting HIV/AIDS back on the public agenda. But debate alone will not curtail HIV infections. What’s needed now are sophisticated prevention campaigns, driven by people and organisations, such as QAHC, that understand the complexities of HIV transmission patterns in Australia at this point in history.

Join the conversation

6 Comments sorted by

  1. Jack Arnold

    Polymath

    Jennifer, the Grim Reaper was dramatically effective at warning Australians of the dangers of HIV/AIDS.

    The present danger is the vilification of the community by Cockup Newman & his Queensland cowboy uncaring conservative government.

    Queenslanders are told that they must endure a NLP initiated economic recession to bring the budget back into balance so that Queensland regains a AAA debt rating.

    Obviously this means important government services to the community will be de-funded "for our own good". To hell with the health consequences!!

    Even Clive Palmer can see the folly of this deception in a world of failing banks reaping increasing profits while propped up with public money.

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    1. James Bush

      primary teacher

      In reply to Jack Arnold

      The Grim Reaper campaign was effective and well-directed. Unfortunately the Bligh maladministration has put our state into a recession that needn't have been. The current state government is far too large and costly and needs to be trimmed drastically. Even Kevin Rudd agrees that this is the case and until public spending is cut by at least 34% the state cannot move forward. Unfortunately the QAHC has become collateral damage but until the massive deficits of the Bligh govt are corrected it is a justifiable casualty.

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  2. Andrew Burry

    General Manager, AACACT

    General awareness campaigns around HIV are long overdue. Indeed, 1987 was our first and only such effort. Contrast this with Germany, where they have maintained a federally-funded population approach to HIV/AIDS education (including detailed sexual health education in schools), but have maintained a strong partnership with community organisations who are funded to work directly with those communities most vulnerable to HIV infection.

    The Queensland Government seems to have taken the view that general awareness and community activity are mutually exclusive, and therefore funds need to be stripped from one to pay for the other. How much better would it have been to support the existing investment in QAHC and others with a further investment in public awareness? The outcome of their decision is likely to be ineffective over the medium and longer term, and in the context of Queensland epidemiology, this is a tragedy.

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  3. Roger Peters

    Psychologist

    Well said Jennifer,

    although as I was was 40 when the ad came out I never thought the Grim Reaper was associated with gay men, I thought it a metaphor for the disease itself, but then I might have just been naive.I guess in hindsight I should have been enlightened.

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  4. Ash Rehn

    logged in via Facebook

    I get the gist of the article and people might debate the sense of using the 'grim reaper' (try asking an HIV positive person what they think of it). But like everything else that it is being written at the moment, this article is vague and misleading on the statistics. Simply using the expression 'new infections' does not make a distinction between newly acquired HIV and newly diagnosed HIV such as exists in the notifications. And there is a BIG difference.

    If we take a look at page 10 of the…

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  5. Golden Dragon

    logged in via Facebook

    Do Not Be Deceived.

    The AIDS Advertisement Screened In 1987 Was Very Much Supposed To Be Taken Seriously.

    Humanity Has Been Frozen In Time Due To Immorality And Sexual Perversions.

    Yes, The Grim Reaper Is Coming For The gay And lesbian Community, Because They Are Doing What They Are Not Meant To Be Doing.

    Homosexuality Runs In Opposition To The Most Ancient Law Of All, Natural Law.

    AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome).

    It Is Very Much A Spiritual Disease, A Disease Based Upon Choice Of Lifestyle. In The Coming Years, The People Shall See This More Clearly.

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