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Responding to AIDS - Home   |    About this Exhibit - Introduction   |    AIDS Emerges   |    Poised to Respond   |    New Programs: Working Together   |    Responding to Fear   |    The AIDS Prevention Project   |    A Leader in Research, Education, and Housing
   |    Expanding Outreach   |    Needle Exchanges   |    The AIDS Omnibus Act: New Mandates   |    Safer Sex: The New Normal?   |    The Legacy   |    Gallery   |    Oral Histories    |    References and Resources

Responding to Fear

Fear Of Contagion

People needed accurate information about their risk of contracting AIDS. While discouraging unfounded fears, Public Health staff responded cautiously, as the disease was just beginning to be understood by the medical community.

Through various approaches—including town hall meetings, communication with local media, brochures, direct correspondence, and the AIDS hotline—the Seattle-King County Department of Public Health sought to educate the general public on the latest scientific understanding of AIDS, serving a critical role as public fear grew.

Can I Get AIDS?

In the correspondence below, one individual was concerned about a shared communion chalice, and another speculates on the possibility of getting AIDS from salad prepared by an infected individual. From Series 10 Boxes 23 and 24. Click on the images to read the full correspondence.



Series 10 – Director’s city/county division files, Seattle-King County Department of Public Health. [10-11-17]

Published in 1984, this brochure responded to concerns among public safety and medical staff that they might contract AIDS while on duty through contact with infected individuals.

Series 1406 – Agency files, County Executive Randy Revelle. [1406-48-1]

Uncertainty in the medical field about AIDS could worsen people’s fear, which could also increase existing hostility toward high-risk groups. The above clipping was sent along with a letter to King County Executive Randy Revelle by a citizen who objected to proposed legislation. The letter blamed homosexuals’ “perverted lifestyle” for “bringing this incurable disease into our midst.”

Series 820--King County Documents Collection

This 1983 brochure answered questions with an honest assessment of the current knowledge about how to avoid contracting AIDS.

Ann Downer talks about people’s fears around AIDS in the early years. (Oral history interview, August 2015.)

Privacy and Civil Rights

Fear of AIDS led to discrimination against people suspected of having the disease. There were calls for registration lists and quarantine of individuals suspected of being sick with AIDS. Loss of employment and housing were realistic concerns.

Series 443 – Administrative files, Seattle-King County Department of Public Health: Office of the Director / Bud Nicola. [443-5-6]

This 1985 memo discusses calls to the AIDS hotline from individuals who had lost their jobs after their employers found out that they had been diagnosed with AIDS. From Series 443, Box 5, Folder 6. Click on the image to read the full memo.

Series 1825 – History files, Seattle-King County Department of Public Health: Prevention Division / HIV-AIDS Program. [1825-1-11]

Headlines included in a 1985 presentation by Public Health, illustrating the impact of a fearful public reaction to AIDS.


While Public Health worked closely with organizations such as the Seattle Gay Clinic, many in the gay community mistrusted the idea of a “surveillance” program, fearing that patient names might appear on government lists that could be used to discriminate against them based on their sexuality or illness. In 1983, the Department had to reassure the community that Seattle police were not maintaining lists of people with AIDS.


Clipping from Seattle Gay News story on leaked list of individuals identified as having AIDS. Click on the image to read the entire article.

The Media

Public Health leaders worked closely with local media to promote public understanding about AIDS and to discourage sensationalist reporting.

1825-1-10-hunter-handsfield-still-from-diagnosis-aids 1825-1-10-tim-burak-sgc-still-from-diagnosis-aids

Stills from Diagnosis AIDS. Left: Hunter Handsfield. Right: Tim Burak.

In 1984, Seattle’s public television station, KCTS-TV, produced a Peabody-award-winning documentary program, Diagnosis AIDS, about the Seattle-King County response to AIDS. Some public television stations in other parts of the United States refused to air the program, citing its “controversial” nature.

Local efforts working with the media sometimes met with mixed results. In 1986, only one of three major local television stations would air a public service announcement produced by the Northwest AIDS Foundation and funded by Public Health and the federal Centers for Disease Control.


Letters to King 5 Television, KOMO-TV, and KIRO-TV regarding the stations’ decision to air or not to air the PSA. From Series 443, Box 5, Folder 6. Click on the image to read the full letter.

Hunter Handsfield on appearing in a TV news segment.(Oral history interview, September 2015.)

Patricia McInturff on media relations. (Oral history interview, September 2015.)

Next: The AIDS Prevention Project


Responding to AIDS

An exhibit and oral history project from the King County Archives.

Content warning: The archival records featured in this exhibit discuss sexual behavior and illegal drug use. Please direct questions or comments to

Copyright King County Archives, Seattle Washington, June 2016.




Please note: This exhibit features historical materials relating to HIV/AIDS. For current health information, please visit Public Health, Seattle & King County - HIV/AIDS and STD Prevention and Education.



Oral histories produced with support from a 2015 4Culture Heritage Projects Grant.