One of the most powerful tools in preventing disease epidemics, particularly those that prove fatal, is through public health education. This lesson was one painfully learned as a result of the AIDS epidemic that has claimed millions of lives since the 1980s.
Originally stigmatized as a virus that targeted sexually active gay men, HIV spread in part thanks to public misinformation. Vulnerable groups did not properly understand their risk factors and the population at large generally had the wrong impression of how the disease was transmitted, despite early evidence that HIV was not easily communicated. A 1985 poll found 47 percent of American believed AIDS could be transmitted by sharing a drinking glass and 27 percent thought a contaminated toilet seat could pass on the HIV virus.
The 1990s ushered in a change in the public's perception of the AIDS crisis, with new health information efforts, red ribbon campaigns to support AIDS victims and public figures dealing with AIDS themselves, such as Roc Hudson, Magic Johnson and Ryan White, an Indiana teenager who became infected with the disease through a blood transfusion. The result was sexual education about the dangers of unprotected sex, needle exchange programs for intravenous drug users and other efforts to curtail the AIDS epidemic.