Friday, June 3, 2011

Ryan White: A leader forged by AIDS

This June is the 30th anniversary of the first report of the disease now known as AIDS. About 30 million people and counting have died of the disease that has pushed the boundaries of science, social norms and patients’ rights.

Are you old enough to remember Ryan White? He was one of the most poignant faces among the statistics in the early days of the epidemic. White died in 1990 at the age of 19 of complications from AIDS.

White was a hemophiliac who became infected with HIV through a blood transfusion. At that time, AIDS was poorly understood and the victims were largely shunned by policy makers, who considered it a gay man’s issue.

“White wanted only to be a teen-ager like everybody else, not to be a saint or a hero,” says James Curran, dean of Emory’s Rollins School of Public Health.

Curran was another key player during the early days of AIDS. When the first cases were reported, Curran was head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention task force that investigated what caused AIDS, and he wrote the first recommendations to limit its spread.

Doctors gave assurances that White posed no danger to his fellow students, but the youngster was pushed out of his middle school by frightened parents and administrators. Entertainers Elton John and Michael Jackson were among the few brave enough to step forward and publicly defend White.

White’s family won a lawsuit against the school’s ban, and he was eventually readmitted as a student. But the school made White eat with disposable utensils, use a separate bathroom and skip gym class. Despite his isolation, illness and young age, White remained compassionate, and became a voice for the rights of everyone suffering from the disease.

Four months after his death, Congress passed the Ryan White CARE Act, a federally funded program for people living with HIV/AIDS.

“He made a huge difference,” Curran says.

Click to check out AIDSVu, a new online tool put together by the Rollins School of Public Health, to show the geographic breakdown for HIV in the United States today.

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