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World AIDS Day: Pop culture milestones in AIDS awareness

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Groups across the globe have joined the World AIDS Day campaign to push for continued treatment and prevention efforts for victims of the epidemic. In honor of the Dec. 1 event, we look back at some of the arts and entertainment industry’s most significant contributions to AIDS awareness over the years.

By Emily Christianson, Patrick Kevin Day, Jevon Phillips and Lora Victorio, Los Angeles Times (NBC / Tristar Pictures / AP / MTV)
‘Sesame Street’
Milestone: First time the AIDS epidemic was addressed to preschool age children.

In 2003, an international version of “Sesame Street” produced for the South African audience, “Takalani Sesame,” introduced an HIV-positive muppet, Kami, left, to its audience. Though the character was intended solely for children in the country where the AIDS epidemic had reached crisis levels, several members of the U.S. media and Congress spoke out against the character and the Sesame Workshop. The controversy quickly ended when televangelist Jerry Falwell and UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan endorsed the character. (Associated Press)
‘General Hospital’
Milestone: Portrayed by Kimberly McCullough, the character of Robin Scorpio was diagnosed as HIV-positive in the 1990s. She was the only soap opera character in the United States with the disease.

The soap opera’s landmark 1995 AIDS story line centered on young lovers Michael “Stone” Cates and Robin Scorpio, whose relationship ends tragically when Stone dies of AIDS complications. (ABC)
‘The Real World’
Milestone: First reality show personality to directly confront a life-threatening illness.

The third season of MTV’s long-running reality series “The Real World” featured Pedro Zamora, an openly gay, HIV-positive AIDS educator, whose struggles with the disease and the reactions of his twentysomething San Francisco housemates formed one of the main story lines for the season. Zamora’s health began rapidly deteriorating shortly after the season began airing and he died the day after the season’s final episode aired in November 1994. (Ken Probst / MTV Networks)
Ryan White
Milestone: 1980s poster boy for the AIDS crisis

Indiana teen Ryan White became a household name in 1984 when his HIV status got him kicked out of school. White, a hemophiliac who was infected during a blood transfusion, and his family worked tirelessly to fight the stigmas and stereotypes surrounding AIDS patients. White eventually became a poster boy for the crisis, appearing in educational campaigns and fundraisers with stars such as Elton John and Michael Jackson. A regular on “The Phil Donahue Show,” he even had a cameo in his own TV movie, “The Ryan White Story” (Lukas Haas played White in the film).

White passed away in 1990 at just 18, and shortly after, Congress enacted the Ryan White CARE Act. The legislation, still active today, subsidizes treatment for low-income and uninsured patients. (Michael Conroy / AP)
‘An Early Frost’
Milestone: First TV program to spotlight AIDS

The 1985 TV movie “An Early Frost” marks the first small-screen depiction of the AIDS crisis. Aidan Quinn portrays a successful lawyer named Michael Pierson who finds his health in decline. After a visit to the emergency room, Michael learns he’s been exposed to HIV. The news propels him to come out to his parents that he’s a gay man living with AIDS, but his family struggles with many of the false perceptions about the disorder.

“An Early Frost” won in ratings that night, outdoing even the San Francisco 49ers/Denver Broncos game. The film was well received by the Television Academy too, receiving 14 Emmy nominations and winning four. (NBC)
‘Philadelphia’
Milestone: First mainstream film to spotlight AIDS

Tom Hanks took AIDS awareness to mainstream film and all the way to the Academy Awards in 1993 with " Philadelphia,” the story of a lawyer fired when his partners at the firm suspect he has AIDS. Despite criticism that the film was watered down, the consensus remains that Hanks’ participation, along with Antonio Banderas and Denzel Washington, catapulted the movie and the message to new heights. (TriStar Pictures)
‘The Normal Heart’
Milestone: First large-scale play about AIDS

Larry Kramer’s semi-autobiographical play “The Normal Heart” made waves in the theater world back in 1985. One of the first stage productions to deal with the AIDS crisis, “Normal Heart” opened at the Public Theater in New York and ran for 294 performances. The show, about Ned Weeks, the gay founder of a gay advocacy group, continued in Los Angeles and London with stars such as Martin Sheen and Richard Dreyfuss taking the role of Ned. A recent New York reading of the play by Joe Mantello, Glenn Close, Michael Stuhlbarg and others raised $150,000 for charity and Mark Ruffalo and director Ryan Murphy are both attached to a screen adaptation. (AP)
‘The Other City’
Milestone: A look at the AIDS epidemic in 2010

Despite the gains made in public policy and AIDS awareness, “The Other City” proves there is still much left to be done. Creators of the Showtime documentary follow activists living in Washington, D.C. Their subjects run needle exchange programs, care for the sick and dying, and run education programs, despite a lack of funding from the government. (Showtime)
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