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The Hidden History of AIDS in Australia

By Isobel Smith

Source: https://www.svhs.org.au/about-us/heritage/facility-heritage

On the way to an excursion in Kings Cross, a teacher at my all-girls Catholic High School pointed out a needle exchange set back in the wall of a fire station. She told us a story about the Sisters of Charity, the order which founded our school, whose charitable history they were incredibly proud of.

This story wasn’t about serving lunch to the impoverished of the great depression, or educating the children of convicts. This story was about the AIDS crisis and how the nuns had fought to establish the first needle exchange and safe injecting room in Australia, one of the first in the world.

She briefly explained that this had been extremely controversial, and that they had even been told directly from the Vatican to stop. I was fascinated, and surprised. To me, this story exemplified the kindness and outreach of the Sisters of Charity, which the school tried hard to instil within us. I was frustrated that in many a history and religion lesson about the nuns’ outreach, I had never heard about this story of pure human compassion overriding the qualms of the public and the church.

The Sisters of Charity ran St Vincent’s Hospital in Kings Cross, the hospital to which the first AIDS patient in Australia was admitted in 1982, and which later, with a go-ahead from the nuns, became a dedicated AIDS hospital. At the time, the public perception of the disease was that it was a ‘gay cancer’, even being termed GRID: Gay Related Immune Deficiency.

Sister Margaret Mines, who was very involved in treating AIDS at St Vincent’s, and who later founded a home for AIDS patients and their families, later reflected on this period, saying, “I was terrified. I mean it’s so completely irrational but that’s the actual fact of it. I was really very frightened. And don’t ask me what I was frightened of because I couldn’t tell you.”

Throughout the mid to late 1980s, Fred Nile, a Christian minister and NSW politician, appeared regularly in the media. He proclaimed a strict Christian morality and stirred up a fear of AIDS and gay men. The other at-risk groups were those needing blood transfusions, sex workers, and intravenous drug users, and while they first received widespread empathy, sex workers and drug users were also ostracised and considered immoral.

Against this background of moral panic, the Australian Minister for Health’s office also moved swiftly to combat the spread of HIV/AIDS. The minister, Neil Blewett, and his openly gay advisor, Bill Bowtell, were particularly central to the prevention focused HIV/AIDS strategy which would become known as the ‘Australian Response’, a model for the rest of the world.

This strategy involved combatting the issue at its source by seeking out, listening to, and funding programs lead by those in the most at-risk groups. The fact that these groups—gay men, sex workers and intravenous drug users—existed at the outskirts of mainstream society and were steeped in stigma presented a significant challenge in combatting the disease. Mainstream society saw a disease of immorality which could not affect them, and would not have looked fondly on the government ‘promoting’ illegal and ‘immoral’ activities.^1

While St Vincent’s Hospital lead the illegal campaign to distribute clean needles for injecting drugs, the government soon got on board, quietly supporting a system of needle exchanges in the epicentre of the Australian AIDS crisis—Kings Cross—as well as a program where drug users were sent out to the suburbs with bags of condoms and clean needles to distribute to peers.

The health minister also commissioned groups of gay men to run safe sex campaigns to promote condom use by men having sex with men. This strategy meant that the materials produced were relevant to the experiences of these men and used terminology and imagery that they could relate to. As Neil Blewett noted, “if you were really to get at the gay community you had to use language, material, which would be very difficult to put the governments imprimatur on.”

The QLD health minister at the time was very morally conservative and did not share the prevention focused views of his federal counterpart. So, another unexpected group stepped up to plate to solve the problem. The Mercy Hospital in Brisbane was run by the Sisters of Mercy, who, like the Sisters of Charity, were founded by an Irish woman and had a strong focus on serving the poor. The hospital ran AIDS services, from healthcare, to support for families, and was a perfect way to circumvent the QLD government. The federal government would give money to the hospital and the nuns would then pass this onto gay groups to run explicit safe sex campaigns.

As the crisis began to ramp up in Sydney, sex workers working on the streets saw from patterns around the world that they were at high risk from the new untreatable STI, and quickly organised. The Australian Prostitutes Collective, the world’s first sex work union, convinced all sex workers on the streets to demand condom use from clients. With federal funding, they went to the brothels, and bargained with them to implement compulsory condom use. Their efforts were extremely successful. The number of Australian cases of HIV contracted by a man from a female sex worker, elsewhere a significant means for contracting AIDS, remains to this day zero.

The 2007 ABC documentary Rampant sums up the situation well, “while stories of plague ran daily in the papers, government was funding gay men to run explicit erotic campaigns about anal sex, sex workers to reform practices within illegal brothels, and the supply of clean needles for injecting illegal drugs.”

Overall, through seemingly disparate groups working together—nuns and government officials coming together with the gay party scene, sex workers, and illegal drug users—Australia was able to effectively tamper the spread of HIV.

The effects of this concerted effort show today.^2 In America, where needle exchanges are rare and HIV is still being fought by advocating morality, the number of current cases is 3 times more than Australia. Clearly, the ‘Australian Response’ is something for Sydney to be proud of. It’s a story of working together to fight off a terrifying disease, and it’s a story of a great success. It’s the sort of story, which, if it were not so gritty, could be held up as a shining example of Australian camaraderie, egalitarianism, and common sense over propriety.


Isobel Smith is a fourth year Science student, and president of the UNSW History Society, a hobby group of students from a range of degrees and backgrounds. She has always been passionate about history, and is especially interested in social and revisionist history.



  1. Adding to the furore, sex between men was decriminalised in NSW in 1984, just as the crisis ramped up.
  2. While overall incidence is extremely low, number of cases are increasing among Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander people. “HIV Rates In Indigenous Australians At All-Time High ASHM”. 2015. Ashm.Org.Au. https://www.ashm.org.au/news/hiv-rates-in-indigenous-australians-at-all-time-high/.

Compass: Sisters Of Charity. 2004. Video. Australia: ABC.

Reporter, Kate. 2019. “Courage On The Streets Kept AIDS In Check”. The Sydney Morning Herald. https://www.smh.com.au/national/courage-on-the-streets-kept-aids-in-check-20071203-gdrqfo.html.

McKenzie-Murray, Martin. 2019. “The Commercial That Scared Us – And Might Have Saved Us”. The Sydney Morning Herald. https://www.smh.com.au/politics/federal/the-commercial-that-scared-us-and-might-have-saved-us-20120404-1wcyy.html.

“HIV And Bleeding Disorders – Haemophilia Foundation Australia”. 2019. Haemophilia.Org.Au. https://www.haemophilia.org.au/about-bleeding-disorders/hiv/hiv-and-bleeding-disorders.

Midwinter Pitt, Victoria. 2007. Rampant: How A City Stopped A Plague. Video. Australia: ABC, 30:18.

McKenzie-Murray, Martin. 2019. “The Commercial That Scared Us – And Might Have Saved Us”. The Sydney Morning Heraldhttps://www.smh.com.au/politics/federal/the-commercial-that-scared-us-and-might-have-saved-us-20120404-1wcyy.html.

Power, Jennifer. 2011. Movement, Knowledge, Emotion: Gay Activism And HIV/AIDS In Australia. Canberra: ANU E Press, 55-58.

Trembath, Brendan. 2009. “Needle Exchanges Prevented 32,000 HIV Cases: Report”. ABC News, , 2009. https://www.abc.net.au/news/2009-10-22/needle-exchanges-prevented-32000-hiv-cases-report/1112288.

“Safer Sex Messages: Australian HIV/AIDS Campaigns 1985–2014 – Australian Federation Of AIDS Organisations”. 2019. Australian Federation Of AIDS Organisations. https://www.afao.org.au/article/safer-sex-messages-australian-hivaids-campaigns-1985-2014/., and Power, Jennifer. 2011. Movement, Knowledge, Emotion: Gay Activism And HIV/AIDS In Australia. Canberra: ANU E Press, 75.

Midwinter Pitt, Rampant.

Crockford, Toby. 2017. “The Brisbane Nun Who Defied Sir Joh’s Government To Help AIDS Sufferers”. Brisbane Times,  2017. https://www.brisbanetimes.com.au/national/queensland/the-brisbane-nun-who-defied-sir-joh-s-government-to-help-aids-sufferers-20171202-p4yxc8.html.

Walsh, Jemima. 1996. “The World’s First Prostitutes Union”. Marie Claire, , 1996. https://walnet.org/csis/news/world_96/mclaire-9601.html. , “About – SWOP Sex Workers Outreach Project”. 2019. Swop.Org.Au. https://swop.org.au/about-swop, and Midwinter Pitt, Rampant.

Their work would eventually lead to decriminalisation of sex work in NSW in 1995, one of few places in the world even now.

Midwinter Pitt, Rampant.

“CDC HIV IDU Fact Sheet”. 2016. United States Center For Disease Control. https://www.cdc.gov/hiv/pdf/risk/cdc-hiv-idu-fact-sheet.pdf.

“HIV Statistics In Australia – HIV Media Guide”. 2019. Hivmediaguide.Org.Au. http://www.hivmediaguide.org.au/hiv-in-australia/hiv-statistics-australia/.



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