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AVERT was founded in 1986 by Peter Kanabus and his wife Annabel, daughter of former Sainsbury's chairman Robert Sainsbury. In its first fifteen years the charity focused on producing educational publications and funding HIV-related educational, social and medical research.
A number of AVERT's publications, such as the AIDS: Working With Young People (1993) teaching pack were based on substantial educational research. In addition many thousands of AVERT's booklets were distributed in the UK each year, covering such topics as sex education, sexuality and HIV.
Medical research funded by AVERT included the first ever study of the effect of pregnancy on the progression of HIV disease, and social research included studies of HIV and drug use in UK prisons.
In 2001 the charity decided to cease funding research and producing printed publications, and instead to concentrate on its educational website and work outside the UK in countries with a particularly high or rapidly increasing rate of HIV infection and AIDS.
The charity's educational website avert.org, established in 1995, claims to be the world's most popular AIDS website, receiving a reported two million page views per month. In 2005 the site won the British Medical Association's Patient Information Award for Websites.
AVERT funds a range of projects in developing countries, predominantly in sub-Saharan Africa, where the AIDS epidemic is most severe. Organisations given money include Sangram in southwest India, and Tholulwazi Uzivikele in KwaZulu Natal.
The charity's work made headlines in 2008 when South African doctor Colin Pfaff was suspended from his post for supplying HIV positive, pregnant women with the antiretroviral drug AZT, which had been paid for by AVERT. At the time the South African government had not approved the use of AZT to prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIV, even though it was recommended by the World Health Organisation and was widely used in other developing countries. Rural doctors, scientists, AIDS activists and organisations rallied in support of Pfaff, and the charges were subsequently dropped.