Red ribbon


Hopefully you will be aware that today is World AIDS Day. Commemorated every year on 1 December, symbolised by the red ribbon.

It is a cause that’s very close to my heart – my favourite band when I was growing up was Queen, and I really did live & breathe their music, videos & lives. I had only just turned 4 when Freddie died, but when I got to that part of their story a few years later I was heartbroken. It seemed incomprehensible to me that this strong, talented man was gone.

The disease also captures my interest from a scientific angle; being a Human Genetics graduate, I’ve studied the type of virus that causes HIV/AIDS in some depth. It is specifically a retrovirus, so named because it contains RNA which then produces DNA when it comes into contact with a target cell (other viruses skip this step and just contain DNA) – this then sets off a bit of a chain reaction when the DNA gets integrated into the target cell. Basically, once this happens the virus is in control of the cell and can start to spread further across the body. (Sorry if that was a bit technical!)

HIV’s targets are immune system cells (hence the name Human Immunodeficiency Virus) – and the particular ones it chooses are found in densely packed areas of the body, massively increasing its efficiency. It’s also especially good at hiding from the rest of the immune system; many people can go undiagnosed until the disease has really taken hold. It often presents with ‘flu-like symptoms, and then stays dormant.

And the disease itself is horrific. The virus slowly takes down the immune system step by step – once the white blood cell count reaches a certain level it is classed as AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome). From there, even the slightest infection can kill the patient: opportunistic infections such as TB, or even viral cancers such as Kaposi’s sarcoma. Along the way most sufferers will end up losing weight and feeling weak – psychiatric symptoms can even manifest. The latter is what caused Freddie Mercury to write the song I’m Going Slightly Mad.

Originally the disease was seen as mainly just a problem for the gay community, however now it is more visibly widespread. There is sadly still stigma attached to people infected with HIV/AIDS, and many misconceptions at how the disease can be transmitted. For the record, you can’t catch it from a toilet seat or by kissing an affected person… It’s kind of depressing that this needs to be pointed out in the 21st century.

I’ve been very pleased that, over the past week or so, all West End theatres have been collecting for AIDS Awareness and that members of each show’s cast have made short speeches before the audience leaves. I heard Charlie Tighe’s speech five times last week at Sunny Afternoon, and that was actually what inspired me to write this post. He points out quite eloquently that the disease can “infect and affect anyone” – religion, sexuality, nationality, age… It doesn’t matter.

So what can you do to help? Put some money in a bucket, buy a ribbon (I happily spotted a few being worn on my commute this morning), or even do some knitting! There’s a project that’s been running since 2008 that collects donations of knitted squares and puts them together to make blankets for AIDS orphans in southern Africa.

Please, just do something.


If you’re in London, you can buy a red ribbon from any WHSmith store or Las Iguanas restaurant. You can also buy them online or from supporters at stations nationwide.

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