Real-life adviser Bill Bowtell reacts to ABC’s AIDS drama In Our Blood

Bill Bowtell and Tim Draxl, star of ABC drama In Our Blood
Images: UNSW, ABC

A key architect of Australia’s HIV/AIDS response, Bill Bowtell, has weighed in on the ABC’s new drama series In Our Blood, exploring the epidemic.

The series explores Australia’s radical response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic and how queer communities, politicians and scientists reacted to stop HIV spreading. They all realise they must all work together in order to save lives. The first episode aired on Sunday, and the entire four-part series is up on ABC iview.

At the time, Bill Bowtell was senior adviser to the Australian health minister and a co-architect of Australia’s response to the crisis. In the TV series, actor Tim Draxl’s character David Westford is based on him.

Forty years ago this month, the Hawke government was elected and AIDS arrived in Australia about the same time, Bill explained to ABC Radio.

“In those early months of 1983, we were really flying blind,” he said.

“We had an increasing number of people turning up right at death’s door. It was a very concerning time.

“For months and months, nobody knew what was causing this mysterious disease. It appears remarkable now after our experience with Covid.

“But people were turning up in very great degrees of distress in America and worldwide. It took a long time before scientists understood it was a virus.”

‘Separate out the fear and hysteria’

Bill Bowtell explained the Hawke government and then-Health Minister Neal Blewett “tried to separate out the fear and hysteria, try to understand the science and base the response on that.”

“Very early on, Dr Blewett went to America. He thought their response would be worth adopting in Australia,” Bill recalled.

“But he thought the response over there was so shocking, so terrible, so politicised, and so wrong.

“When he returned, he told the shadow Health Minister that whatever Australia did would be based on Australian conditions [and] science. With no treatments, we were in for the long haul. We had to stop the disease from spreading.

“The governments and oppositions of Australia came together to form this partnership between government, the affected communities and the scientists.

“Those principles have lasted for 40 years. Hundreds of thousands of lives were saved.”

‘Grim Reaper’ ad was ‘tip of the iceberg’

Bill Bowtell said Australia’s infamous “Grim Reaper” ad campaign from 1987 may be “what people remember” from the era. But the chilling advertisement was “the tip of a very big iceberg of the response.”

“It took us from 83 to 87 to understand how serious this problem was. We had to have a long-term solution and response to it,” he told ABC Radio.

“That required a lot of money behind a very effective strategy for care and treatment, research and above all prevention.

“There was a tremendous public education campaign at the time. Not just the TV commercial, but a mass mailout to Australian households.

“[Australia] was saturated with frank, effective and truthful information about the need to change sexual behaviours for prevention. We had to bring the Australian people right up against the problem, and tell them the truth.

“After the ads and the work of communities, behaviour change really locked in a decline in new infections.

“Unfortunately AIDS deaths kept rising for another 10 years. But we started to diverge remarkably from Europe and America.”

Bill said that was a real achievement for Australia. He said successive governments and health ministers have kept that going for 40 years.

Bill Bowtell shares his reaction to ABC’s In Our Blood

The public health expert said watching ABC’s In Our Blood brought back all of his memories of the period.

“It’s 40 years ago, but when I watched it, it seems like 40 weeks ago,” he said.

“Tim Draxl (pictured below) gave a great performance and Oscar [Leal] plays a character based on my lover at the time.

“It brings back all the memories of those times. I think the series captured the essential elements and my story really well.”

Bill Bowtell added, “I wish it hadn’t happened. But thinking back and seeing how people responded, it was remarkable to see the outpouring of love and compassion.

“We saw all of the good things that were required to see people through what was an extremely difficult and horrible time.

“We lost almost 7000 people to AIDS in australia. Every one of those people is a story. Their family and friends were deeply affected by their early and untimely deaths, often in very unpleasant circumstances.

“The series… pays tribute and remembers all of those people we lost to HIV and AIDS before their time.”

All episodes of In Our Blood are streaming on ABC iview.

Read also: Brisbane’s Sportsman Hotel features in new ABC drama In Our Blood

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Jordan Hirst
Jordan Hirst

Jordan Hirst is an experienced journalist and content creator with a career spanning over a decade at QNews. Since 2012, the Brisbane local has covered an enormous range of topics and subjects in-depth affecting the LGBTIQA+ community, both in Australia and overseas. Today, the Brisbane-based journalist covers everything from current affairs, politics and health to sport and entertainment.

QNews, Brisbane Gay, App, Gay App, LGBTI, LGBTI News, Gay Australia

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