Today is World Aids Day and, to mark the occasion, The Argus has looked back at the history of the HIV/Aids epidemic in Brighton, some 40 years after the virus was first detected in the city.

We spoke to Harry Hillery, founder of the Brighton Aids Memorial group, about the tragic death of his close friend Andrea at the age of 26 and his work to document the history of the epidemic in the city.

Harry Hillery first moved to Brighton in 1988 to set up a cafe in the city and to live openly as a gay man.

His cafe in Gardner Street, set up with his friend Heather, quickly became established as a "queer hangout" in the city but it was not long before people began to fall ill with HIV and later Aids.

Harry said: “You would walk up St James’s Street and see people, and you knew you might not see them again.

“You’d walk up a street and you’d see ‘Gay? Got Aids yet?’ graffitied on a wall. It was a very dark period.”

The stigma that surrounded the virus almost from the start was even present within his own family, Harry said.

“I remember when I came out to my mother, her first thought was ‘are you going to die?’. The rhetoric back then was that gay equals Aids and death,” he said.

Harry got involved with the Sussex Aids Centre and Helpline, which provided advice for those worried about or affected by Aids.

He said: “At that time, the calls were really wide-ranging - people terrified because they’d held the hand of someone who was HIV positive, to ‘I’m gay, I have HIV and nobody knows - what do I do?’”

As community groups formed to help battle the virus and help those living with it, Harry said that 1991 for him was “a year of funerals”.

It was also the year that his close friend, Andrea Philippe Regard, died aged just 26.

The Argus: Andrea died in May 1991, two months after his 26th birthdayAndrea died in May 1991, two months after his 26th birthday (Image: Harry Hillery)

Andrea, a florist, lived opposite Harry and acted almost as a mentor for him as Harry navigated his way through the gay scene for the first time as an openly gay man.

Harry said: “He was a gorgeous human being who I warmed to instantly. We very quickly became friends and he became my mentor, in a way, having never been in the closet - he helped me in my own journey navigating this new world.

“He got ill very quickly and was ill for a long time, but in denial. I’d have conversations with him and say he was losing weight and he would say ‘I know what you’re thinking, it’s not that’.

“I kind of knew what was happening, but he was very much in denial.

“In 1991, if you got an HIV test, the only benefit of that is that you knew you were going to die.”

Harry admitted that he also questioned whether to take an HIV test at times as he was afraid of receiving a positive test.

“I was practising safer sex, but many people were choosing not to have sex at all, such was the level of terror at the time,” he said.

Towards the end of his life, Andrea returned to his Catholic faith, sold his possessions, sent money back to his family in Brazil and gave away certain items to friends.

Harry said: “He knew he wasn’t going to live long, but he dealt with that very powerfully.”

At one point, Harry himself did not want to believe that his close friend was going to die.

The pair watched the film Beaches together at Andrea’s suggestion. It follows two friends, with one living with a terminal illness.

Harry said: “I was watching the film in tears and he held my hand and said ‘Do you understand now? I’m going to die and you’ve got to come to terms with it'.

“He clutched his rosary beads, looked me in the eye and said ‘I’m dying but I’ll be one of your angels when I’m gone’.”

Soon after, Andrea fell into a coma and died at Hove General Hospital.

Harry looks back fondly at a birthday party two months before Andrea’s death, which the pair organised at Harry’s cafe in Gardner Street.

He said: “Money was no object and it became a huge event. We were talking about doing canapes, so I had to dig deep to produce sensational food.

“It was like trying to create Versailles on Gardner Street.

“All the happening people from the area came because he knew them all and it turned into a fantastic party, but was shut down by the police after a neighbour complained - it was rocking.”

The Argus: Andrea at his 26th birthday party, two months before his deathAndrea at his 26th birthday party, two months before his death (Image: Harry Hillery)

Several years on in 2012, Harry was inspired to document more of the history around the epidemic and ensure those who died from the virus in the city are not forgotten.

He said: “I felt like hearing Andrea’s name was not enough.

“Since starting this project, information has been unearthed that would have been lost forever if I had not done it and people have found it quite cathartic.”

For Harry, the project ensures that the people who died from Aids in Brighton will never become just a name on a piece of paper or another statistic.

He said: “As long as you keep celebrating someone who has died, you keep them alive in a different dimension.”