AIDS and the “high-risk” group.


AIDS protest

(Image source: NPR)

“When my doctor indicated to me in December of 1981 that I was
immune deficient I said, “What does that mean?” And he said,
“We don’t know.”

“The effect of being told that I was immune deficient was devastating. I called my parents and said “I am going to die.”

(Two statements by Michael Callen, who was diagnosed with HIV in 1981 during the subcommittee hearing on AIDS)

The magnitude of the AIDS epidemic could not be overstated. In the United States the first case of AIDS would emerge in 1981 as an immune system failure. This period of panic was not only seen in the United States, but in the Soviet Union as well. While we tend to view these two superpowers as being opposites we see a similar response to the spread of AIDS and a similar labeling of “high risk” groups.

In 1985 speculations in the Soviet Union began to arise as to the cause of the AIDS epidemic. The author Zapevalov, notes that as of October of 1985 over 13,000 cases of AIDS had been recorded in the United States, however he estimates the reality is that at least 500,000 Americans are infected. Zapevalov speculates that the AIDS epidemic was state sponsored in order to test new biological weapons. By unknowingly administering this disease to “high risk” groups which were universally defined as primarily homosexuals, drug addicts, and prostitutes, the Center for Disease Control could test the spread of biological weapons in densely populated areas. (Zapevalov 16)

While this article appears rather fanatical, using the church of scientology as a credible source for the United States goverment affairs, it does illuminate an international opinion on the AIDS epidemic. AIDS was a mystery to nearly everyone. With this deep mystery and fear came stigmatization. AIDS became the “gay” disease. A disease to eliminate these populations of outcasts. In 1987 a group of Soviet Union doctors released a statement on the rise in AIDS “We are convinced that within a short time AIDS will destroy all drug addicts, homosexuals and prostitutes…. Long live AIDS!” Not only was AIDS spreading rapidly and mysteriously, some in positions of power viewed the epidemic as a response to moral collapse. By defining this disease as only being contracted by homosexuals and drug addicts the government response, in both the United States and the Soviet Union was minimal. (Novikov 17)

In 1988 as the AIDS epidemic continued to spread at near unimaginable rates the Soviet Union continued to define the most at risk group for contracting diseases as the outcasts of society. The homosexual, the drug addict, and the prostitute. “It must be acknowledged that homosexuality is, above all, a medical, social, and moral problem.” (Ignatov 25) This stigmatization continued to lead many to turn a blind eye to the epidemic that ravaged communities across the globe.

However,  months after this article we see a different tone in the discussion of AIDS. Largely due to a woman from Leningrad died from the disease. She was worker and student, who after dying from the disease, was revealed to be a prostitute for “often foreign clients.”(Tutorskaya 23)  This incident sparked a demand for better technologies and accessibility to better testing methods, and reveals that AIDS could no longer be stereotyped as the “gay” disease.

Similarly in the United States various organizations were noting the United States deficiencies in response. The United States AIDS panel stated that the United States government was complacent to the AIDS epidemic and that “there was no national plan for the impact of AIDS on an already faltering healthcare system.”(Hilts 1)

The stigmatization of AIDS in both the United States and the Soviet Union allowed the epidemic to continue to destroy communities that the governments both deemed to be socially immoral. AIDS is still heavily stigmatized, silenced, and is still an emotional topic for everyone in LGBT spaces. In 2015 the total number of deaths caused by AIDS reached over 658,000 people. The stigmatization has not ended, currently in the United States, men who have been sexually active with a male partner within the last 12 months are not allowed to donate blood, regardless of testing and under the Red Cross FAQ the “High Risk” identity remains seen below:

Screen Shot 2018-04-29 at 6.41.47 PM.png

This screenshot taken on April 29, 2018 from the American Red Cross FAQ section shows the stigmatization of AIDS, for over 30 years the three groups stigmatized as high risk and dangerous to public health are drug addicts, homosexuals, and sex workers.

Watch: A video created by Vanity Fair

Look: the Timeline of AIDS


“Federal response to AIDS : hearings before a subcommittee of the Committee on Government Operations, House of Representatives, Ninety-eighth Congress, first session, August 1 and 2, 1983” Boston Public Library. August 1983.

PHILIP J HILTS “AIDS Panel Finds U.S. Failure in Providing Care.” New York Times. Dec 07, 1989.

A. Ignatov. “Toward the Drafting of New Criminal Legislation: ON PENALTIES FOR SEX CRIMES.” Current Digest of the Russian Press. No.15, Vol.40. May 11, 1988. 25-26

A. Novikov. “AIDS.” Current Digest of the Russian Press. No.33,  Vol.39. September  16, 1987. 17.

S. Tutorskaya. “AVERTING A CATASTROPHE.We Can Stop the Spread of AIDS Only by Pooled Efforts.” Current Digest of the Russian Press. No.41, Vol.40. November  09, 1988. 23-24.

Valentin Zapevalov. “Panic in the West, or What’s Behind the Sensation of AIDS.” Current Digest of the Russian Press. No. 48 Vol. 37. December 15, 1985. 16.


7 thoughts on “AIDS and the “high-risk” group.

  1. It is unfortunate to see that the Soviet Union and the United States have the same stigmatization about Aids. Do you know about how Russia currently feels about AIDS? Is their still a stigmatization?


  2. I also wrote about the Soviet response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic. I wrote two research papers on HIV/AIDS last semester, one on its history in the U.S., and one on the present epidemic in Russia. It’s really sad that people continue to think of it as a disease that people “deserve,” and that it went ignored by most of America for the first decade of the epidemic. The stigma in Russia today is especially bad, and it’s caused their number of new cases to increase rapidly each year. Why do you think the stigma persists despite the wealth of information that disproves most of people’s concerns?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I think one of the largest reason we still see this stigmatization persist is that often information doesn’t transcend prejudice. The hyper sexualization of queer people and the stigmatization that queer/LGBTQ people are more likely to harbor STDs and HIV/AIDS continues to persist today, and as a queer person it’s difficult to understand that stigma against me. I don’t know much about the AIDS stigma in 21st century Russia but I do know that the Russian stigma towards LGBT individuals in general is scary, I could definitely see the stigma around AIDS being especially harmful! Thanks!

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Sadly, I think you are correct — that information doesn’t translate into knowledge when bias is involved. I struggle with that recognition all the time. I’m so impressed with the research you did in the Current Digest for this post, which is a perfect companion to Emma’s discussion of how the Soviets manipulated public opinion about the epidemic before they were forced to concede that it wasn’t an American conspiracy. I learned a lot from reading this. Thanks!

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Great work here Garrett! We like to think we have made leaps and bounds in understanding AIDS and its victims. However, your screenshot shows that we still associate AIDS as a “gay disease”. Additionally, you made great use of the Current Digest to trace the public’s opinion about AIDS. Great post!


  4. Good hook with your introduction about how that individual specifically reacted to aids. Its wild to think that people who were diagnosed with this disease were labeled as outcasts. I try to imagine what it would be like to live in a society like that and I can’t imagine it. Has this outcast idea about Aids remained in soviet culture to modern day and how so?


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