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Roots of World AIDS Day trace back to Bay Area

Roots of World AIDS Day trace back to Bay Area, KPIX reporter
Roots of World AIDS Day trace back to Bay Area, KPIX reporter 04:15

SAN FRANCISCO -- World AIDS Day was first observed 34 years ago on December 1, 1988.

The day of remembrance was created to help the world unite in the fight to end AIDS and also to commemorate  those who lost their lives to AIDS-related illnesses.

What you might not know is the origins of this public health initiative has its roots in the Bay Area and a former KPIX reporter named Jim Bunn.

Bunn had just moved from the East Coast to work at KPIX in early 1983. His first assignment was to cover a press conference at the Irwin Blood Bank about autologous blood donations in light of burgeoning AIDS epidemic.

The mysterious illness was first reported in a CDC medical report in 1981 and finally got a name in 1982.

Bunn realized it was a story like none other. The illness was devastating the city's gay community. Within a decade, half of San Francisco's gay population would be lost the disease.

"It had sex and death - and all these things that for the purposes of a journalist trying to tell a story," Bunn recalled. "Everything as in this not just as a story, but it was also a huge social tsunami."

 Very early on, KPIX 5 decided to cover AIDS in an unprecedented manner.

There were nightly news stories, and the station initiated a pioneering public education campaign.

The station joined forces with the San Francisco Department of Public Health as well as community AIDS groups.  It was a driving force to report on the science and not to hype or sensationalize the coverage.

There was frank discussion on the air about how AIDS was known to be transmitted; and what you could do to protect yourself.

Part of the campaign was a special series of ongoing reports known as "AIDS Lifeline". The campaign would be recognized with a prestigious Peabody Award.

Bunn soon became the nation's first fulltime television AIDS reporter. He read medical journals and scientific reports and spoke regularly with researchers and physicians. 

He traveled around the United States, and the world, to report on the pandemic

His reporting caught the attention of the World Health Organization -- the United Nations agency is responsible for international public health -- headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland. 

At one point, WHO officials asked KPIX to loan Bunn to the organization to work in its public information office and to help develop an AIDS education plan. KPIX agreed.

"I was gobsmacked, " Bunn said. "Here I was - the stupidest high school biology student in the history of American public school education and being asked to go to the World Health Organization to help with the global pandemic."

In 1987, Bunn and another public information office named Thomas Netter came up with the idea to galvanize public support for research and a way to end AIDS.

 That year, Bunn helped to announce the plan at the International AIDS conference.

The idea was to designate December 1st as "World AIDS Day." The first event was held in 1988.

As to why December 1st? Bunn and Netter knew the date fell between Thanksgiving and the Winter holidays where there is usually a lull in the news cycle. There was a higher likelihood that journalists and media outlets would cover the event. 

"That World AIDS Day model was actually patterned after the experiences we had with AIDS lifeline", explained Bunn.

World Aids Day is the regarded as the longest running disease awareness initative of its kind in the history of public health.

 Bunn is proud of its legacy. 

"We became the reputable source because we were so dogged in the pursuit of the story," said Bunn.

The story continues to unfold. Last year alone, more than 1.5 million people were infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. Since the beginning of the pandemic, about 80 million people around the world have been infected with the virus; and roughly half have died.

As for Bunn? These days he is a film documentary producer, writer, and director. 

For more information:

World AIDS Day

Global Statistics on AIDS

AIDS Lifeline Peabody Award

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