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Ryan Wayne White (December 6, 1971 – April 8, 1990) was an American teenager from Kokomo, Indiana, who became a national poster child for HIV/AIDS in the United States after failing to be re-admitted to school following a diagnosis of AIDS.
As a hemophiliac, he became infected with HIV from a contaminated factor VIII blood treatment and, when diagnosed in December 1984, was given six months to live.
Doctors said he posed no risk to other students, as AIDS is not an airborne disease and spreads solely through body fluids, but AIDS was poorly understood by the general public at the time.
When White tried to return to school, many parents and teachers in Howard County rallied against his attendance due to concerns of the disease spreading through bodily fluid transfer.
A lengthy administrative appeal process ensued, and news of the conflict turned Ryan into a popular celebrity and advocate for AIDS research and public education.
Surprising his doctors, Ryan White lived five years longer than predicted.
He died on April 8, 1990, one month before his high school graduation. During the 1980s AIDS was largely stigmatized as an illness impacting the gay community, because it was first diagnosed among gay men.
In the USA that perception shifted with the media focus placed on Ryan and other prominent straight HIV-infected people such as Magic Johnson, Arthur Ashe and the Ray brothers, although these cases were often framed as ‘innocent’ against gay men who were seen as ‘guilty’ subjects.
The U.S. Congress passed a major piece of AIDS legislation, the Ryan White CARE Act, shortly after White's death, which was signed into law by President George H. W.
Bush in August 1990.
The Act has been reauthorized twice; Ryan White Programs are the largest provider of services for people living with HIV/AIDS in the United States.
Early life and illness
Ryan White was born at St. Joseph Memorial Hospital in Kokomo, Indiana, to Hubert Wayne and Jeanne Elaine (Hale) White. When he was circumcised the bleeding would not stop and when he was three days old, doctors diagnosed him with severe hemophilia A, a hereditary blood coagulation disorder associated with the X chromosome, which causes even minor injuries to result in severe bleeding. For treatment, he received weekly infusions of factor VIII, a blood product created from pooled plasma of non-hemophiliacs, an increasingly common treatment for hemophiliacs at the time.
Healthy for most of his childhood, White became extremely ill with pneumonia in December 1984. On December 17, 1984, during a lung biopsy, White was diagnosed with AIDS. By this time the scientific community had studied the epidemic in great detail. Earlier that year, HTLV-III was identified and isolated by American research scientists, confirming the work done by French research scientists who called it LAV. A lengthy public battle to determine who should be recognized as the discoverer of the human retrovirus delayed development of a test for what would later be called HIV. White had apparently received a contaminated treatment of factor VIII that was infected with HIV, as did thousands of other Americans with hemophilia and hemophiliacs around the world. At that time, because the retrovirus that causes AIDS had been recently identified, much of the pooled factor VIII concentrate was tainted. Blood banks and pharmaceutical companies dismissed calls by the CDC to use a hepatitis B test as a surrogate until an HIV test could be developed. Late plasma products were screened and heat-treated to deactivate both HIV and hepatitis. Among hemophiliacs treated with blood-clotting factors between 1979 and 1984, nearly 90% became infected with HIV and/or hepatitis C. At the time of his diagnosis, his T-cell count had dropped to 25 per millimetre cubed (a healthy individual without HIV will have around 500–1200; below 200 is AIDS-defining in the US). Doctors predicted Ryan White had only six months to live.
After the diagnosis, White was too ill to return to school, but by early 1985 he began to feel better. His mother asked if he could return to school, but was told by school officials that he could not. On June 30, 1985, a formal request to permit re-admittance to school was denied by Western School Corporation superintendent James O. Smith, sparking an administrative appeal process that lasted for eight months.