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Ryan White's Fight for AIDS Awareness

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Ryan White's Fight for AIDS Awareness

Ryan White should have turned 40 today. But he died April 8, 1990, at age 18, after a too-short and tumultuous life in which he battled HIV and the prejudice that surrounded it — as well as the somewhat unwelcome place in the spotlight his condition thrust upon him.

When White was infected with HIV from a contaminated blood treatment in 1984, AIDS was still a new disease, not widely understood and carrying great stigma. He found himself shunned by classmates and their parents — when he was finally allowed to return to school, that is. After a prolonged absence due to his illness, White was denied re-admission to school, forcing his family into a months-long legal battle with the school board. As he discussed his story with interviewers and local coverage yielded to national attention, White became a poster boy for AIDS awareness. Celebrities rallied to his cause and he became friends with luminaries from Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to Michael Jackson to Elton John.

When Ryan White died in 1990, those celebrities continued to support his family, turning out for the funeral — Michael Jackson was there, as well as Phil Donahue, Barbara Bush, and 1500 others. Elton John performed a special tribute to the boy who touched his heart.

Since 1990, we've made great strides in the fight against HIV/AIDS — just last week, researchers announced new advances in controlling the spread of the virus. And we understand the disease better, allowing those who live with it to lead a more normal life than Ryan White did, with less stigma and prejudice. We still have a ways to go, but we can thank White for all he did to help raise awareness and promote understanding.