The Ryan White Comprehensive AIDs Resources Emergency Act marked a milestone recently as it celebrated its 25-year anniversary of providing comprehensive care for nearly 525,000 low-income people living with HIV.

The act was named for the young American boy who was diagnosed with AIDS at the age of 13 following a blood transfusion. Prior to his death in 1990, Ryan fought discrimination based on his illness in his community in Indiana. Legislation to honor him and support others with HIV/AIDS was passed soon after his death.

“The purpose of the program is to provide HIV care and treatment for people infected with HIV who don’t have resources to get those services on their own,” said Dr. Laura Cheever, a physician and associate administrator for the HIV/AIDS Bureau at the Health Resources and Services Administration of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Helping fight AIDS

Cheever’s federal government office provides such medical care services as intensive case management, doctor visits, medication, laboratory visits, transportation for medical visits and other services for patients to stay in care. 

The HIV/AIDS program extends from major U.S. cities heavily impacted by HIV, such as Chicago, New York, Dallas, and Tampa, to small rural areas where the epidemic is located such as the rural south.

Cheever says 25 years ago when someone was diagnosed with HIV and particularly, "if they were diagnosed late with AIDS, they had a terrible prognosis. Most people with AIDS lived six months or less.” If they are now diagnosed early and get into care and remain on treatment, “they can live a near normal life span.” Cheever said, “The faces of AIDS have completely changed in the last 25 years.”

With support from his family, Ryan fought to overcome the stigma of an HIV/AIDS diagnosis. But the fight to reduce that stigma goes on today.

“When Ryan White was first diagnosed with HIV, there was just a lot of fear in his community. He was initially not allowed to go to school. With his family, particularly with his mother, he fought for his right to go to school. That was really one of the main things that he wanted to do in his life,” Cheever said.

Ryan White fought discrimination

“In some way, the issues around discrimination against HIV have gotten a lot better in this country,” Cheever said. “People do have rights in terms of living with HIV and being allowed to attend school and work. “However, there’s still a huge amount of stigma in the community and many people, once they’re diagnosed do not seek services because of the stigma around being HIV infected.”

The stigma is not as big of a problem as it was when Ryan was diagnosed thanks to his hard work after his diagnosis and the ongoing work of others in educating people on how the disease is contracted.

“Someone is not going to get HIV by drinking water out of the glass someone has used, or by sharing a bathroom, or by hugging a person with HIV, and so I think it is important to explain how HIV is transmitted,” the doctor said.

She explained that HIV is transmitted “through very close contact, sexual contact, sharing of needles and it’s not going to happen in a casual relationship or by sharing a house with someone.”

Living with AIDS but no cure

Cheevers said the U.S. National Institutes of Health, (NIH) is still conducting research for a cure for HIV/AIDS.

“But we do know that if someone is successfully treated, they will live a near normal life-span which is great news for them, but also their risk of transmitting HIV to someone else is virtually zero,” said Cheevers..

She highlighted the key to lowering the risk of transmitting HIV is identifying the disease early through testing and making sure the person gets effective ongoing treatment. With proper care the HIV/AIDS epidemic can be substantially reduced.