Political interference hindered war on Aids

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The Independent Online
THE SEXUAL ignorance of ministers hampered government attempts to educate the public about Aids, research to be published this week will show. Tens of thousands of pounds were wasted and Aids campaigns were frequently confused and contradictory.

The report highlights the campaign from 1986 to 1990. It says rivalry, ignorance and prejudice among health department officials and some senior politicians, including Margaret Thatcher, then prime minister, caused delays, and work to be banned and pulped against the advice of Aids experts and after expensive market research.

'The Aids public education campaign was characterised by persistent government interference for political and ideological reasons,' the authors say.

Lady Thatcher is said to have been kept out of the campaign because she found the issue distasteful. In one incident, her office ordered the removal of a man's nipple from a photograph used in an advert.

On another occasion, a senior information officer recalled: 'The Prime Minister said that we couldn't have 'anal sex' and we had to have 'rectal sex' instead.'

The researchers, David Miller of the Media Unit, Glasgow University, and Kevin Williams of the School of Journalism at University College, Cardiff, were financed by the Economic and Social Research Council. Their study, for which more than 100 senior civil servants and government officials were interviewed, will be presented at a conference at the South Bank University in London on Saturday.

The study blames government intervention, as well as disagreements and distrust between the then Department of Health and Social Security and the Health Education Authority, for delays in running campaigns and the fact that some campaigns and education materials never saw publication.

Interviewees said that some ministers knew little about sex and were unsympathetic towards homosexuals. They were also keen to use a moral, rather than a medical message.

A DHSS official said of a minister involved in the campaign: '(He) had real problems. He was deeply ignorant about sexual matters - he was unable to pronounce 'vagina'. You've no idea what a problem it is to talk to someone who doesn't believe in sex anyway.'

Another official said of a discussion on gay men: 'One minister didn't know what oral sex was . . . he had to be told. He said 'They don't, do they?' '

The first mass advertising was planned for 1986 and was supposed to be a series of fairly explicit advertisements in national newspapers. Market research said the adverts 'worked well'. According to DHSS officials, Sir Donald Acheson, then the chief medical officer, became 'dreadfully alarmed because the prime minister had said that she wanted nothing to do with it'.

Some DHSS officials said even Sir Donald seemed reluctant to discuss the subject with them, so they had to wait until he was on a train returning from a conference in Newcastle. An official recalled: 'About nine people clustered round this poor fellow, who didn't want to talk (in a public place) about water sports (sex with urine) and rimming and that sort of thing.

'And casual business people were looking over as they wandered through to the buffet or the lavatory. So it was very, very difficult to pin him down.'

In 1987 the Government launched two television adverts featuring icebergs crumbling into the sea and, in the second, the word 'Aids' being chiselled into a gravestone. Both were criticised for failing to provide information about the virus or safe sex.

But a Department of Health spokesman said: 'The criterion for deciding whether a campaign is successful is whether it does the job. There's a very high awareness of the risks from HIV and Aids.'

(Photograph omitted)