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Who is Ryan White?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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Ryan White was an American teenager who died from AIDS in 1990. He was one of the first public faces with AIDS in the United States, and he helped to change perceptions about HIV/AIDS; despite his illness, White was an outspoken advocate on HIV and AIDS issues until his death, speaking everywhere from Congress to national television. Along with people like Rock Hudson, Magic Johnson, and Freddie Mercury, Ryan White humanized HIV/AIDS for Americans, and illustrated the importance of addressing the AIDS epidemic.

White was born in 1971, and at three days of age, he was diagnosed with hemophilia. For much of his young life, he was in and out of the hospital, and he was also obliged to receive treatments with blood products. One of the blood products used to treat Ryan White was tainted with HIV, a common problem before HIV/AIDS was formally recognized and a test was developed to screen blood. By 1984, White had full-blown AIDS, discovered during a surgical procedure to treat the complications of pneumonia.

In the 1980s, public awareness about AIDS was very limited. Most people thought that the disease only affected gay men; in fact, AIDS was once known as Gay Related Immune Deficiency (GRID). Ryan White was determined to go to school and continue with his life, but he faced considerable prejudice and opposition. Parents and teachers at his school in Kokomo, Indiana tried to block his return to school, despite support for Ryan's case from the scientific community, and a series of protracted legal battles ensued.

Ultimately, Ryan White won the right to go back to school, but he faced taunting and prejudice. After a bullet was fired into the family home, the Whites moved to Cicero, Indiana, where he was welcomed by AIDS-aware students and staff at Hamilton Heights High School. He often cited his experiences at Hamilton Heights as proof that AIDS education was effective.

Although Ryan White tried to live a relatively normal life, he became an AIDS poster child, thanks to his willingness to speak out about AIDS issues and to promote AIDS education. He became a minor celebrity in the United States, and an inspiration to many AIDS patients struggling with prejudice stemming from a lack of education and awareness about the disease. Ryan White often stressed in public appearances that AIDS patients could not transmit the disease through casual contact, and that many of them suffered as a result of being ostracized.

After Ryan White died in 1990, outliving his original prognosis by five years, the American Congress passed the Ryan White Care Act, which provides funding to low-income individuals with HIV/AIDS. His death inspired public comment from a number of notable figures, and many people from the generation of children who went to school in America in the late 1980s and early 1990s remember Ryan White from educational posters and videos about AIDS.

PublicPeople is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a PublicPeople researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon22032 — On Nov 26, 2008

I wanted to know if Ryan White, ever in his life, had won any awards, and i wanted to know whats Ryans middle name. thank you!

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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