LONDON -- Princess Diana opened Britain's first AIDS hospital ward Thursday and shook hands with nine homosexual patients to 'explode' the myth that the disease can be passed through casual contact.
Officials at Middlesex Hospital invited Diana to open the ward and shake hands with the patients without surgical gloves.
'She did this to explode the myth' that AIDS -- spread through sexual contact and blood products -- can be caught from ordinary activities like shaking hands, a spokesman at Buckingham Palace said.
Sources close to the Princess told the British media she felt no apprehension at the visit.
Britain has 731 confirmed AIDS cases and there have been 377 deaths. More than 600 of the cases involved homosexuals, with the rest involving intravenous drug users, hemophiliacs, blood transfusion receivers and people who caught it through heterosexual contact. One case is unexplained and does not fall into any category, health officials say.
During her 40-minute visit to the AIDS ward, Diana also shook hands with a state-enrolled male nurse, Shane Snape, 28, who works on the ward and has carried the virus for two years, although it has not developed into AIDS.
'The Princess shook my hand without wearing gloves and that meant more to me than anything,' Snape said. 'For want of better words it gives AIDS a royal approval and helps to break down this stigma to what's attached to it.'
Diana spent time sitting at the bedside of the patients -- described by hospital officials as all homosexual men ranging in age from their 30s to 67 and discussed opera with the oldest sufferer.
The visit was conducted privately and the patients refused to pose for news photographers because they did not wish to reveal their identities. One agreed to posing for a photograph in which he shook the hand of a smiling Princess Diana, his back to the camera.
Some hospital staff expressed diappointment that the patients shied away from the media but nurse Jacqui Elliott said she understood their hesitancy.
'People who have been brave enough to be on camera have suffered some very unpleasant consequences with their homes being ransacked because unfortunately there is still a lot of prejudice among the general public,' she said.
Polls have shown the British public is very concerned with the disease and manufacturers of condoms have reported rising sales.