Facing a community that shunned him for having AIDs, Ryan White became a prominent advocate of those suffering from the deadly disease, educating the world and inspiring compassion.
"Because of the misunderstood disease called AIDS my life changed overnight," said Jeanne White-Ginder, White’s mother. She was in San Francisco to participate in World AIDS Day, a day to remember those who lost their lives to the disease and to re-energize efforts to halt its spread.
White was born a hemophiliac and contracted AIDS in 1984 at the age of 13 from tainted blood products used to treat his condition. He died five years later.
"Little did we realize later on that the drug that we thought was saving his life was going to be the drug that took his life, because, yes, it later contained the HIV virus," White-Ginder said.
A few days after his 13th birthday, White "came into the house and said, ‘Mom, you got to do something. I can’t even get off the school bus without getting tired,’" White-Ginder said.
At the time, little was known about HIV/AIDS and for a while doctors were puzzled by his condition.
The day after Christmas, White-Ginder told her son he had contracted AIDS. The community they lived in, Kokomo, Ind., made it difficult for the family. The local public school refused to allow White to attend school, and one day after work she found someone had slashed all four tires on her car.
White’s struggle with the disease and the community’s reaction attracted widespread media attention, and soon White was befriended by a number of celebrities, including music pop star Michael Jackson and actress Elizabeth Taylor.
"Today, Ryan is widely acknowledged as one of the earliest AIDS activists," said Stephen Seewer, a board member of the AIDS Institute. "He put a human face on the epidemic at a time when the nation was gripped in fear of people with AIDS."
Jackson dedicated a music video to White, soon after he died, called "Gone Too Soon." "To me it’s so very precious — it’s for everybody who has died from AIDS — because to me they have all gone too soon."
Months after White’s death, Congress enacted the Ryan White CARE Act, which provides funding for those infected with HIV/AIDS. Last year, it generated $2.2 billion in funding for services and treatment.
San Francisco has the highest per capita number of people living with AIDS. There are about 14,000 people living in San Francisco with HIV/AIDS, and 18,000 residents have died of the disease since 1981, according to the San Francisco AIDS Foundation.
For the last five years, efforts have stabilized the spread of the disease with 500 to 1,000 infections a year.