This past weekend, Bloomington remembered Ryan White, one of the first young victims of HIV/AIDS to appear in the national spotlight during the mid 1980’s.
A native from Kokomo, Ind., Ryan White was 13 in 1984 when he contracted HIV through a regular blood product transfusion, which he received weekly to help manage his hemophilia.
At this point in time, HIV was considered a gay-related auto-immune disease (formerly called GRID) and it was not well understood how HIV was spread; many people believed it could be spread through casual contact. As a result, Ryan faced a great deal of push back from community and school members, many of whom petitioned to ban him from school.
His story eventually caught fire in the national media, and Ryan became one of the first faces of HIV who was not part of the gay community.
The stigma against HIV during this period was enormous.
In February 1986, Ryan attended one day of school, and as a result, only 151 of the 360 students at his school attended school that day. In addition, Ryan faced taunts, verbal and even physical threats.
In February 1986, a study in the New England Journal of Medicine determined that the risk of infection was minimal to non-existent in close contact with HIV victims. Many popular figures in the music industry, such as Elton John, Michael Jackson, and John Mellencamp publicly socialized with Ryan in an effort to discredit the idea that casual contact with a victim of HIV was dangerous, and de-stigmatize HIV as a whole. Even President Ronald Regan and First Lady Nancy Reagan met with Ryan.
For the next four years, Ryan would spend time promoting and educating this idea around the country as a national spokesman for HIV/AIDS.
On March 29, 1990 Ryan White was admitted to the Riley Hospital for Children in Indianapolis with a respiratory infection. On April 8, 1990 Ryan passed away.
Today, Ryan’s legacy remains through legislation and philanthropy efforts. In August of 1990, the Ryan White Comprehensive AIDS Resources Emergency Act, more commonly known as the Ryan White CARE Act, was passed to help with funding for AIDS victims as a last resort. In particular, this act was aimed at those who were low income, uninsured, or under-insured, and is one of the largest federally funded programs for people living with AIDS.
In Bloomington, the Indiana University Dance Marathon was started in memory of Ryan White and donates the funds it raises during its event to Riley Children’s Hospital. There is also a special scholarship called the Ryan White Legacy Scholarship for those pursuing master’s degrees in Public Health.
If you’re looking to learn more about Ryan White’s life, the Indianapolis Children’s Museum is currently displaying 6,000 letters written to Ryan and also has a designated Ryan White Room in it’s museum.