Ryan White was 13 when he was diagnosed with AIDS in December 1984. He had had a blood transfusion, and his doctors told him he only had six months to live. When Ryan tried to return to school, he faced AIDS-related discrimination from his classmates. He quickly became the face of public education regarding AIDS. Ryan's story is one that encourages us to promote AIDS awareness and intervention strategies. The Ryan White Program, named in his honor, focuses on providing services to people with HIV and AIDS that allow them to live normal lives.
Ryan lived five years longer than the doctors predicted. He died in April 1990, one month before his high school graduation. In August that year, Congress passed the Ryan White Comprehensive AIDS Resources Emergency (CARE) Act.
Ryan was one of the first children — one of the first hemophiliacs — to be diagnosed with AIDS. At a time when there was little information or education regarding AIDS, this was a staggering diagnosis. Despite his staggering diagnosis and the prediction that he would only have six months to live, Ryan still wished to attend school. He had not been to school in a year and a half.
When he did go back to school, people were cruel to him. Ryan’s mother said that they often told him that he “had to be gay, that he had to have done something bad or wrong, or he wouldn’t have had it.” Ryan was even told that it was “God’s punishment.”
The ridicule and discrimination he experienced caused the family to move out of town to Cicero, Indiana. The community welcomed them here because of the student body president Jill Stuart. Jill recommended that the school bring in medical experts to talk to the kids about AIDS; the children then went home and educated their parents. So, Ryan was welcomed into his community and his school. He got to attend school proms and dances. He even got a job at a local shop putting together skateboards. Ryan told his mom that he “got a job just like everybody else does.” He truly felt that he could begin to blend in, despite the community knowing about his diagnosis.
Even though Ryan died in 1990, his legacy lives on in the CARE act and in those who share the story of Ryan’s ability to live a normal life, despite his AIDS diagnosis. The CARE act has been amended and reauthorized four times since its passing.
The Ryan White Program
Ryan’s legacy also brought about the Ryan White HIV/AIDS Program (RWHAP), which helps low-income people with HIV receive medical care, medication, and essential support services to help with the sustainability of care. Over 50% of people diagnosed with HIV (around half a million people) receive services through RWHAP annually.
The program provides grants to cities, states, counties, and community-based groups. Grant funding helps to provide care, medication, and essential support services to people with HIV, HIV-related health outcomes, and reduce HIV transmission.
The program is structured into five parts:
- Part A provides grants to eligible metropolitan areas and transitional grant areas. Arkansas is not eligible to receive funding for Part A.
- Part B provides grants to all 50 states and some U.S. territories to improve HIV health care and support services, including improvements to quality, availability, and organization. According to the Arkansas Department of Health, persons who are HIV-positive in the state of Arkansas can receive a variety of services through Part B, including an AIDS Drug Assistance Program, oral health care, health insurance premium and cost-sharing assistance, and medical transportation services, among others. There are eligibility requirements that persons must meet before receiving these services.
- Part C provides HIV/medical visit compensation, transportation services, pharmaceutical services, and more to eligible Arkansas males. Arkansas males with HIV and aged 25 or older are eligible for benefits through Part C. Eligible participants must also meet certain income requirements to qualify for support through these services. Participants must provide documentation before services kick in, and they must also rescreen every six months to determine continued eligibility.
- Part D provides similar services to Part C. Eligible participants are females of any age or males aged 24 years old or under living with HIV in Arkansas. There is no income limit to apply for Part D. Eligible participants must also rescreen every six months, just like in Part D.
- Part F provides training and education to providers treating patients with or at risk for HIV, innovative models of HIV care and treatment to respond to RWHAP client needs, oral health care for people with HIV and education about HIV for dental care providers, and improved access to HIV care and health outcomes for minorities. Part F is only eligible for domestic public or private non-profit organizations, schools, academic health science centers, faith-based organizations, tribes, and tribal organizations, as well as dental schools, hospitals with dental residency programs, community colleges with dental hygiene programs, and RWHAP recipients.
The Ryan White HIV/AIDS Prevention Program has been vital to the U.S.’s public health response to HIV over the last 30 years. In 2020, this program served over 561,000 people. Of the clients who received HIV care, 89.4% reached viral suppression, according to the Health Resources & Services Administration. Viral suppression means an individual has a minimal risk of transmitting HIV to HIV-negative partners. The national average of viral suppression is 65.5%.
The Ryan White Program has been the cornerstone for AIDS and HIV education throughout the U.S. Ryan White’s story has garnered the recognition it deserves. To learn more about the Ryan White program, HIV Care hotlines and resources, grant information, survey and study data, and other guides and resources, visit their website.