RYAN WHITE AND I would be the same age if he were alive today. He's not. He died in 1990 at the age of 18, right before he was going to graduate from high school, of an AIDS-related respiratory tract infection.
For the final few years of White's life he became famous--a household name--fighting for the right to attend school in Indiana at a time when Americans were still not entirely certain about how the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) was spread. He was a hemophiliac who became infected from a blood transfusion, but at the time, most of American culture thought of HIV and AIDS as something that only afflicted gay men and those who injected street drugs.
White's court fight with the local school board became a cultural rallying point to drive an important point home: HIV and AIDS were going to kill off a whole lot of people unless Americans got serious about addressing the risks.
If you were a closeted gay teen, like I was, White also represented a fearful look at a dangerous future. I reached sexual maturity as a member of a high-risk class. My early adult life was shaped by the full awareness that I could very easily share White's fate.
White was one of more than 18,000 people in the United States to die of AIDS-related illnesses by 1990. But life today for people who have HIV and for those who are at risk of infection is remarkably, wonderfully different than it was in his time. While HIV has not yet been cured, medical research across nearly 35 years has brought us to a place where the virus can be fully suppressed. Not only are HIV-positive people able to enjoy normal life spans, they're also able to be sexually active with HIV-negative partners without the risk of passing on the virus.
In 1995, AIDS was the top killer of Americans between the ages of 25 and 44, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data. By 2016, HIV-related illnesses no longer cracked the top 10 causes. More people now die of kidney disease.
'YOU CAN LIVE A HAPPY LIFE'
THE DECLINE IN the spread of HIV and the dramatic drop in AIDS-related deaths are among the biggest health-related good news stories of the first part of the 21st century.
"It's an uplifting story with a lot of twists and turns," explains Myron S. Cohen, a professor of medicine, microbiology, immunology, and epidemiology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He would know: He's partly responsible for one of the story's more significant chapters. In 2005, Cohen organized a massive international study of more than 1,700 primarily heterosexual couples where one partner was HIV-positive and the other was HIV-negative. As the quality of drug therapy had been improving, a theory needed to be explored: Do these treatments suppress HIV levels to the point that the virus could...