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Ryan White, My Own Story

An excerpt from a touching tale of a courageous young man, his battle against fear and hatred, and his fight to educate the public about AIDS.
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Ryan White, My Own Story

by Ryan White
"Does AIDS Hurt?" and Other Answers to Questions People Ask

Ryan White was a teenage boy who acquired AIDS from a blood transfusion (he had hemophilia), and later died. He was even expelled from school when he was diagnosed. He was just thirteen when he found out he had AIDS, in 1984, and was given six months to live, though he lived for another five years. During that time, he became a poster child for the disease and frequently appeared on television and in public to answer questions from people of all ages about AIDS. He wanted to make people understand how the disease was and was not spread.

Today it's extremely unlikely that you could get AIDS the way Ryan did. Blood transfusions and blood products like Factor VIII are treated so that they no longer harbor the virus. AIDS is a disease that is hard to catch. You usually have to behave in certain ways to get it, so there are ways to make sure you don't.

Ryan made a special point of talking to children and teenagers because they responded so well to him. He also was particularly concerned about teenagers because they are at such high risk—they are more likely to experiment with sex and drugs. More than twenty percent of people who have AIDS are diagnosed in their twenties. That means that they may have been infected during their teens. And AIDS is spreading faster and faster among teenagers.

Ryan believed that both AIDS and prejudice against people with the illness are spread by ignorance. He was convinced that education would cut down the number of AIDS cases—and quell the prejudice that he and other patients have suffered.

Ever since 1981, when AIDS was discovered, it has been an epidemic. People infected with the AIDS virus live in every state, and in most other countries around the world. To continue Ryan's campaign, here are answers to questions people asked him most frequently about the illness.

What is AIDS?

AIDS stands for Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. "Acquired" means it's a disease that you can be infected with; it's not an illness you are born with, like hemophilia.

"Immune deficiency" means a breakdown in your body's defense system against disease. AIDS is caused by a virus, a tiny germ that has to live inside a living cell. The AIDS virus is also called HIV, which stands for human immunodeficiency virus. When the virus enters your body, it invades a cell that's part of your immune system, and turns the injected cell into a virus factory, churning out copies of its invader. Those many copies of the original virus attack other cells that are key parts of your immune system. You then can get rare diseases that would not affect you if you were in normal health.

"Syndrome" means a group of signs or symptoms that occur in a particular illness. If you have either of two unusual diseases, that's almost always a sure sign that you have AIDS. Those diseases are Kaposi's sarcoma, an uncommon cancer, and pneumocystis carinii pneumonia (also known as pneumocystis pneumonia or PCP), the rare kind of severe pneumonia Ryan had when he was first diagnosed in 1984.

When you're in normal health, your immune system can withstand many kinds of viruses, including those that cause flu. But when you have AIDS, your body can't fight off infections. Over time you become less and less able to fight off diseases. Eventually the illnesses you're susceptible to lead to your death.

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