G-SPOT

From scary slim rumours and stigma to undetectable: A short history of the Aids virus

It wasn’t until 1999 that Kenya’s President Daniel arap Moi finally stopped condemning condom users as people of loose morals

In Summary

• The 1980s were characterised by a wave of scaremongering

A drama troupe members performs a play on the spread of Aids at the World Aids Day celebration at Kianjokoma, Embu county
A drama troupe members performs a play on the spread of Aids at the World Aids Day celebration at Kianjokoma, Embu county
Image: FILE

Tomorrow is World Aids Day. If you were not around in the 1980s and 1990s, you might find it hard to believe how far the world has come with this disease.

Back in the early to mid-1980s, I remember there being a wave of scaremongering in Kenya, with fingers pointed at Ugandans for spreading an illness known as ‘Slim’. 

Scientists at the time said this mystery illness resembled the recently discovered Aids, which had briefly been referred to as Grid (Gay-Related Immune Deficiency). But as far as some were concerned, Grid or Aids affected intravenous drug abusers, homosexuals and bisexuals in Europe and North America, and so this similar illness in Uganda that affected heterosexuals had to be something else.

There were worrying stories in the media about something they called Green Monkey Disease and Slim being one and the same thing. Today we know Green Monkey as Marburg haemorrhagic fever, something akin to Ebola, but at the time the poorly informed rumour mill networks (there may have been no Twitter, but there was loads of fake news) were busy with stories of monkeys raping humans to pass on the disease.

The Kenya government, like others across the globe, had no idea how to react, and so denied everything. The government’s line was: Kenya has no cases of Slim or Green Monkey disease or Aids, and anyone saying different is an enemy of our development out to ruin our tourist industry.

With no cure or treatment and no real idea how the disease was spread, even sitting on public toilet seats was considered risky behaviour.

In the UK, where I lived briefly at the time, the government decided the best way to tackle the Aids pandemic was to frighten the populace into not catching it. Grey-coloured leaflets featuring an iceberg and gravestones were sent to every household in the country. TV became a tool of public education, though with so little real information there was precious little education.

For many in the West, even Britain’s Princess Diana shaking hands with an Aids patient at a hospice in 1987 was not enough to de-stigmatise the disease.

It wasn’t until 1999 that Kenya’s President Daniel arap Moi finally stopped condemning condom users as people of loose morals and agreed to declare the illness that had killed over 500,000 Kenyan lives “a national disaster”.

Today, 34 years since 1985, people who get treated for the illness live long, healthy lives, are undetectable and are unable to transmit it. 

We have harnessed science and technology to an extent where procedures and treatments that may have seemed like science fiction just 20 or 30 years ago have become routine in our lifetimes.

Last year, I wrote in an SA magazine about an HIV/Aids NGO, Shout-It-Now, that was piloting “Test and Treat technology.” This is a mobile clinic consisting of two trucks equipped with self-help kiosks. Using interactive touchscreens and audio-visual aids, not only does it offer cheaper and faster on-site testing, but it also uses a biometric finger scanner function that protects client confidentiality. 

As that old cigarette advert for Virginia Slims (see what I did there?) used to say, “We’ve come a long way, baby.”