Why you should Rock the Red Ribbon this World AIDS Day

What is the red ribbon and what is its history?  

Take a look around you on the run up to December and you might notice people wearing a red ribbon. This is because World AIDS Day occurs every year on December 1st and the red ribbon is a symbol of awareness and solidarity with people living with HIV. 

The red ribbon, which turned 30 this year, was originally designed by a group of artists as part of a Visual AIDS project. The purpose was to ‘create a visual expression of compassion for people living with HIV’ (i), as at the time being HIV positive was heavily stigmatised, with people being forced to suffer its consequences in secret and those openly living with the virus being marginalised by society.   

The artists who designed the red ribbon originally distributed it themselves (alongside information relating to its significance) in venues around New York. However, it soon became one of the most recognisable symbols of the 1990s, gaining international media attention when it was worn by actors such as Jeremy Irons (ii) at the 45th Annual Tony Awards and similarly being sported by celebrities attending events such as the Oscars, Emmys and Grammys. Then, on Easter Sunday 1992, over 100,000 red ribbons were distributed among the audience at the Freddie Mercury tribute concert at London’s Wembley Arena.  

Why is the red ribbon and World AIDS Day still relevant today?

Today, the red ribbon remains a visual expression of compassion and solidarity with those living with HIV, particularly on the run up to World AIDS Day. While a lot of advancements have occurred since the ribbon was launched, including scientific advancements and medical treatments that make HIV a manageable virus to live with, the ribbon’s message – and that of World AIDS Day more broadly – remain as important as ever.  

Over 35 million people have died from HIV and AIDS related illnesses since the virus was identified in 1984, and this number is significantly higher if we consider those who died before 1984, ‘making it one of the most destructive pandemics in history’ (iii)This is just one of the reasons why the red ribbon still matters – as it acts as a mark of remembrance for those who have lost their lives.  

The red ribbon is also important many people still face various barriers when trying to access effective treatment. An estimated 38 million people worldwide are currently living with HIV, with many facing the same stigmatisation and marginalisation faced by those in 1991 when the ribbon was first launched. Even in the UK, stigmatisation associated with HIV remains a pressing problem, with research carried out by The National AIDS Trust finding that only a third of people ‘have sympathy for people living with HIV regardless of how they acquired it’ (iv). Such stigmatisation can result in delays in people being tested – and the earlier someone receives a diagnosis, the more effective their treatment will be. The persistent stigmatisation is in part driven by the fact that myths around HIV continue to persist. One in five people think HIV can be spread via kissing and only 16% were aware that people living with HIV can have a long and healthy life and can’t pass the virus on when receiving effective treatment (v). 

World AIDS Day presents a great time to not only stand in solidarity with those living with HIV – by wearing a red ribbon - but to challenge these misconceptions, setting the record straight and changing the narrative around HIV.  

#RockTheRibbon and share the facts about HIV 

This World AIDS Day we encourage you to rock your own red ribbon in solidarity with those living with HIV and to share the facts around HIV on social media using the hashtag #RockTheRibbon -  just make sure you tag us in any posts you share! 

You can order a red ribbon from The National AIDS Trust shop before Friday 26th November, or you can buy one from any branch of MAC Cosmetics in the UK.  

Alternatively, you can download a virtual red ribbon - so you can #RockTheRibbon wherever you are! If you do use a virtual red ribbon, you can make a £1 donation for this by texting REDRIBBON to 70085.