Call for another 'Grim Reaper'

Twenty years after the 'Grim Reaper' television advertisements, leading HIV/AIDS researchers -- including those from UNSW -- say another graphic campaign is needed to tackle increasing infection rates.

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Twenty years after the 'Grim Reaper' television advertisements, leading HIV/AIDS researchers -- including those from UNSW -- say another graphic campaign is needed to tackle increasing infection rates.

HIV infection rates have shot up by nearly 50 percent in the past five years in Australia, from 650 a year to 1000 a year.

Researchers believe a false sense of security is threatening to spark an epidemic among young Australians who were not around for the striking original campaign.

That campaign, which illustrated the dangers of HIV/AIDS by showing victims as bowling pins being knocked down by a 'Grim Reaper', first appeared on April 5, 1987 and is believed to have saved tens of thousands of lives.

Professor Sue Kippax, the director of the National Centre in HIV Social Research at UNSW, said that in the mid-80's Australia adopted bold innovative policies to deal with the HIV/AIDS epidemic. "As a result, we have some of the lowest infection rates of HIV and AIDS in industrialised countries," she said.

If we had followed US policies, instead of having 6,600 deaths and 22,615 HIV cases since 1982, we might have had 50,000 deaths and 150,000 infections.

"The policies included frank and specific sex education aimed at young Australians and the introduction of needle and syringe programs through which drug users had access to clean needles and syringes as well as increased places on methadone programs as a heroin alternative," Professor Kippax said. "There was wide distribution of condoms, promotions of safer sex messages and many other initiatives."

Dr Alex Wodak, a conjoint academic with UNSW and the director of the Alcohol and Drug Service at St Vincent's Hospital, said that until the Grim Reaper, Australians were complacent about AIDS.

"It's also forgotten that the funding in the May 1987 budget for initiatives made a massive difference, " said Dr Wodak, who has been working with people with HIV/AIDS for more than 20 years. "We need to remember we are still in the early phases of a global HIV/AIDS epidemic. It is still spreading. It is still frightening."