Rampant: How a City Stopped a Plague

03 Dec


A bit of must-see TV on ABC tonight.

Courage on the streets kept AIDS in check

IT WAS a warm November day in 1982 when a young, fit New Yorker was admitted to St Vincent’s Hospital in Darlinghurst.

After much deliberation the 27-year-old gardener, in Sydney on holidays, was diagnosed with acquired immune deficiency syndrome. Six months later, having been discharged, he was dead, and Sydney would never be the same again.

Since then AIDS has swept the world, 25 million people have died and 60 million are infected, but in Australia the death toll stands at less than 7000, and infection rates have been steadily declining for more than a decade. In some parts of the world they have soared.

Now two film-makers have made a television documentary detailing how Sydney, led by an unlikely gang of gays, prostitutes and junkies, managed to hold back the wave of death and destruction that swept over cities such as New York and San Francisco, saving tens of thousands of lives.

The film, Rampant: How a City Stopped a Plague, which screens on the ABC tonight as part of the 25th anniversary of the first diagnosis in Australia, outlines how authorities here took a different tack to the rest of the world by setting up a needle exchange program, enlisting sex workers to insist on condoms and using gays to promote the safe sex message, while countries such as the US were insisting on sanctions and abstinence.


I’m watching it now. It is actually quite hard to watch, but it is nonetheless very very good. There are people I have met in this documentary, and many more I have seen around. The St Vincents Hospital nun who features was at Lord Malcolm’s funeral. Dr Alex Wodak I have met several times, indeed I also taught his son at one time (class of 1997*). Dr Wodak is a very impressive man whose down-to-earth approach to the so-called “war on drugs” was rejected by the likes of John Howard. And what a poisonous, stupid influence the Reverend Fred Nile was then — and is, on this matter anyway. (He is also a Uniting Church minister as well as a politician, but is in no way in my experience typical of the Uniting Church.) Neal Blewett was the right person as (Labor) Health Minister in the Australian government during those critical days in the mid to late 1980s, and the co-operation between him and the Liberal Party’s Peter Baume was such an example of what our politics must get back to, and I hope will. Read Justice Michael Kirby’s account of the two men.

This was also the time I “came out”. Quite a few people I met during those years are no longer with us.

This documentary should be widely screened in the USA.

Sydney and NSW have done well with AIDS prevention strategies, comparatively, thanks to the coalition of people shown in the documentary and by not taking the path the USA took under Reagan and has revived under Bush. The ACON Surveillance Report 2007 continues to show that trend. But there is no scope for complacency, and other figures are not so pleasing.

— Number of new HIV diagnoses in Australia increased by 31% between 2000 and 2006 (763 to 998).
— Number of new HIV diagnoses in NSW decreased from 394 in 2005 to 381 in 2006.
— In NSW, the prevalence rate was 5.9 per 100,000 for 2006, which continues the steady decline that started in 2003.
— Likewise the rate of diagnosis of newly acquired HIV infection in NSW has declined from 2.4 in 2003 to 1.8 in 2006.
— Rates of newly acquired HIV in Victoria have risen by 40% since 2000 and are now at the same level as NSW…

The stats for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders may interest some readers:

— Rate of HIV diagnosis among ATSI decreased from a peak of 7.5 per 100 000 to 4.9 in 2006 (which is comparable with non-ATSI rate of 5.1 in 2006).
— Male homosexual contact accounted for 37% of infections (compared to 65% in non-ATSI), while heterosexual accounted for 34%. A much higher percentage of infections occurred through IDU* among Indigenous than non-Indigenous (18% v 3%) and a higher percentage of infections among women (30% v 11% non-ATSI).

* intravenous drug use


I have decided to add the ending of the story I wrote (in its final form) in 1989 after the suicide of a friend. This section was written within days of the events it describes and is totally true, names changed only. I am “Colin”. “Luke” at the time was 21. “Jay”, you will notice, died on his 28th birthday.

September/ October 1989

We hold each other. Luke spends days sleeping in my room. I light seven candles in St Mary’s Cathedral.

We tell each other stories:
did I tell you when he
he told me that Colin
is there anything that bugger didn’t tell you about me?
not much

Tennyson’s “In Memoriam” has never seemed so good.

Luke, I have lost one friend–please, I don’t want to lose two. Luke outside my door at 4 am having spent the last 36 hours in Centennial Park. He is scrabbling in the little suitcase with purple locks. He carries it everywhere. I saw J carrying it when I first saw him again in 1987.

Did you know J was bashed last year?
Yes, he told me.
So much hate.
You know he told me a year ago he didn’t think he was going to win.
The most he could hope for was to live with it.
So much love.

When the Reverend Fred Nile and his fundamentalists march into Oxford Street set on a bit of cleansing I am out there with the crowd. I wear my Mardi Gras T-shirt with additions:


Sept. 1961-Sept. 1989

‘Gone where fierce indignation
can lacerate his heart no more.’


Fred has his thousand, harmless-looking folk pushing strollers, mingled love and fear on their faces as they march up Oxford Street.

But we have five, ten thousand voices chanting NO MORE GUILT! NO MORE GUILT!

And my voice is the voice of three, a trinity of love grief and anger, and in me sing J and Luke and I:

We shall all be free
We shall all be free
We shall all be free some day
And it’s deep in my heart
I do believe
That we shall all be free someday.

And I see his face, a touch side-on, the slightly crooked nose and shy smile, eyes so often fearful, the bursts of anger, the incredible gentleness and my tears choke my singing and a gay man hugs me and says So you’re human after all…


J hated gay stories with tragic endings.


* Always interesting to see what people go on to do: see arch-angle.

UPDATE 12 February 2008

This is old but very interesting. Containing HIV in NSW: a world class success (1999) — PDF

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3 responses to “Rampant: How a City Stopped a Plague

  1. Owen McLeod

    December 3, 2007 at 11:39 pm

    It was a great doc to watch.

  2. Denys

    December 6, 2007 at 5:04 pm

    I thought it was great to see the story finally being told.

    The good doctor’s son was at the launch of the documentary which I happened to attend. The crowd clapped when, in the film, Alex said that he would have defied the police to stop handing out clean syringes. I noticed that Alex was holding his wife’s hand and when people clapped, she squeezed his hand and looked into his eyes. It was a very tender moment between them and I reckon the applause was like some sort of validation that he made the right decision.

  3. ninglun

    December 6, 2007 at 5:24 pm

    Alex Wodak ran a staff development session at SBHS a few years ago on the subject of drugs. He was just brilliant.

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