Princess Diana helped break the stigma of HIV/Aids when she visited Edinburgh Aids hospice Milestone House – Susan Dalgety

Diana’s landmark statement that ‘HIV does not make people dangerous to know. You can shake their hands and give them a hug’ changed attitudes towards the disease
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The bold, slightly childish, signature of a young woman is the centrepiece of a new exhibition that has just opened in Edinburgh. The seven-month display, mounted by the National Library of Scotland in partnership with Waverley Care, Scotland’s leading HIV and hepatitis C charity, tells the story of Scotland’s battle against HIV and Aids. And in pride of place sits the visitor’s book for Milestone House, the world’s first hospice for people living – and in the 1980s and 90s, dying – from the disease.

The entry simply states, Diana, 11th October 1991. But this was no ordinary visitor. Diana was the then Princess of Wales, mother of Princes William and Harry and King Charles’ first wife.

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And her visit to Milestone House was no routine Royal visit. At the time, the hospice in Oxgangs was viewed with fear by local residents. HIV and Aids were terrifying. There was no cure, and public health campaigns featuring tombstones had terrified the population.

There was stigma too. The virus spread mostly through sexual contact. It ravaged the gay community and spread like wildfire among the city’s intravenous drug users. People with HIV were often shunned, even by their friends and family.

Diana changed all that. Right from the outset of the disease, she was the highest profile and, by far, the most glittering public figure to campaign for HIV sufferers to be treated with compassion. She opened the UK’s first specialist HIV and Aids unit at London’s Middlesex Hospital in April 1987, where she made what was regarded at the time as an almost revolutionary statement.

“HIV does not make people dangerous to know. You can shake their hands and give them a hug. Heaven knows they need it. What's more, you can share their homes, their workplaces, and their playgrounds and toys,” she said.

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And when she visited Milestone House a few months after it opened, she sent a clear signal to the world. It may sound like hyperbole to say that a picture of a glamorous princess drinking tea with a visibly ill young woman, Sally Miles, could change attitudes, but it did.

Diana, Princess of Wales, has tea with Sally Miles, 26, a resident at Milestone House, the UK's first purpose-built Aids hospice (Picture: PA)Diana, Princess of Wales, has tea with Sally Miles, 26, a resident at Milestone House, the UK's first purpose-built Aids hospice (Picture: PA)
Diana, Princess of Wales, has tea with Sally Miles, 26, a resident at Milestone House, the UK's first purpose-built Aids hospice (Picture: PA)

It’s almost forgotten now, but in the 1980s and early 90s, Edinburgh was regarded as Europe’s Aids capital. The city’s infection rate was seven times higher than the national average – largely because it was spreading through the heterosexual community as well as among the gay population.

But instead of trying to scare people into changing their sexual behaviour, in particular to use condoms, as the Thatcher government had done, Edinburgh’s health chiefs chose to use compassion and humour to spread important public health messages. Just like Princess Diana.

The “Take Care” campaign was frank and funny, and made clear that HIV and Aids could affect anyone. And services such as needle exchange, antenatal screening and contact tracing helped to significantly reduce the spread of the virus. Lessons learned in Edinburgh more than 30 years ago are still saving lives today in places like Malawi, where one million people are living with the virus.

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It's fashionable today to dismiss Princess Diana as nothing more than a slightly hysterical clothes horse, but her work on HIV and Aids likely saved thousands of lives and made many more worth living.