In the 1980s, the AIDS crisis swept the world—and along with it came AIDS hysteria. Parents pulled their kids from schools and some even attacked innocent children who suffered from the disease - even Ronald Reagan said parents were right to be scared, fueling the panic. But a single photo of Princess Diana holding the hands of an AIDS patient in 1987 challenged stigmas about the disease and changed the world.
Princess Diana’s impact on society can’t be overstated. In her too-brief life, the people’s princess touched the lives of hundreds of thousands of people around the world. Princess Diana’s humanitarian work included serving as president or patron for more than 100 different charities. Rare photos of Princess Diana show her compassion and humanity.
The Princess Di AIDS handshake not only destroyed the myth that the disease could be transmitted by touch, it also showed Diana’s compassion for victims of the AIDS epidemic. The tragic death of Princess Diana in 1997 ended her humanitarian work, but the legacy of the people’s princess lives on.
In 1987, when the AIDS crisis was still only a few years old, Princess Diana changed the way people thought about the disease in one simple way: she shook the hand of an AIDS patient. Diana didn't wear gloves to "protect" herself from the disease, and she didn't shy away from a person with AIDS. Diana’s act challenged the incorrect myth that HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, could be spread by touch, and it treated an AIDS patient with dignity and respect.
And that wasn’t Diana’s only contribution. She opened the UK’s first HIV/AIDS unit at London Middlesex Hospital. The unit exclusively cared for patients infected with the virus, and Princess Diana returned multiple times before her death in 1997 to spend time with patients.
Why was Diana’s simple act so important? It’s hard to realize it today, but in the 1980s AIDS was a new and unknown disease that sparked hysteria. Fear of the epidemic spread misinformation, including the belief that even casual contact could spread the virus. Some politicians even called for the mandatory testing of the entire population and the quarantine of AIDS patients.
Even children infected with HIV were shunned and stigmatized. In the mid-80s, Ryan White, a boy with hemophilia who contracted HIV through blood transfusions, was banned from his middle school in Indiana. Teachers insisted that Ryan would infect other students through handshakes, and neighbors wanted Ryan fired from his paper route because they believed he might spread the virus simply by handling newspapers. Ryan became an important activist and spokesman fighting against the disease before he passed away at eighteen.
AIDS was first identified in 1981 in the United States. In the early years of the epidemic, before the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had isolated the virus and named it, AIDS was called “the 4H disease,” since the people affected tended to be heroin users, homosexuals, hemophiliacs, and Haitians. The press called it “GRID”—gay-related immune deficiency—and for a long time, the disease had a social stigma because of stereotypes about its victims.
As the number of AIDS victims grew, fears ran rampant, including the myth that casual contact could spread the virus—even though the CDC concluded by 1983 that the disease could not be transmitted that way.
In 1985, Time Magazine published an article called “The New Untouchables.” It detailed AIDS-related discrimination that the authors described as “verging on hysteria.” In one example, the authors noted that only one children in the New York Public School system had AIDS—out of 946,000 children. On the first day of school in 1985, 944 of the 1,100 students at a single elementary school, P.S. 63 in Queens, stayed home.
A state assemblyman decried the danger of children with AIDS attending public schools. “There is no medical authority who can say with authority that AIDS cannot be transmitted in school. What about somebody sneezing in the classroom? What about the water fountain? What about kids who get in a fight with a bloody nose? They don't know!"