AIDS: From Ryan White to Today’s Silent Epidemic

While H.I.V. rates have fallen in many places, the AIDS crisis remains in some of the U.S.

Rates of H.I.V. infection have fallen in many places, but the AIDS crisis persists in some parts of the country. What can be learned from history – and specifically the story of Ryan White?

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For teachers
  • Producer: Meral Agish
  • Sr. Producer: Kit R. Roane
  • Editor: Anne Checler
  • Editor: Sandrine Isambert
  • Editor: Lila Place

For Educators


This 11-minute video shows students the panic and prejudice that surrounded the early epidemic of AIDS during the Reagan administration and how one American teenager became a symbol of resilience in the struggle to gain acceptance, protection, and treatment for AIDS victims. While demonstrating the gains that activists and scientists have made in slowing the virus with new treatments and greater awareness, the video also documents how AIDS continues to disproportionately affect persons of color living in poverty. Including interviews with Dr. Anthony Fauci and other experts, this video helps students see the connection between past and current epidemics, and see how social status affects public health decisions.

Background reading

In the early 1980s, AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome) was initially discovered among homosexual men in Los Angeles, New York, and San Francisco, and some of the public reacted with ignorance and bigotry. Before long, it was clear that women with infected sexual partners and others who shared blood could also be infected. As the epidemic spread, so did the fear. There was no treatment for HIV (the virus that causes AIDS) and by 1988, twenty thousand Americans had died.

Although federal health authorities found no evidence of transmission through casual contact, public concern remained high. One poll found that half of Americans wanted to quarantine those with AIDS. Gay rights advocates worked to fight against discrimination and provide more education.

In the mid-1980s the perception of HIV-positive individuals began to change, in part because of the story of Ryan White, a 13-year-old boy in Kokomo, Ind. He was a hemophiliac who accidentally contracted AIDS through a tainted blood transfusion, and became deathly sick.

He recovered in early 1985 but his school district refused to let him attend classes, as many parents, students, and teachers believed (erroneously) Ryan would spread AIDS through casual contact.

So his mother began a lengthy legal fight that eventually forced the family to move to another town so Ryan could go to school. But those struggles also put her son in the national spotlight, where he became a spokesman for AIDS tolerance.

He spoke eloquently to his classmates and on TV talk shows, making clear that AIDS was not a curse or punishment but an infectious disease that anyone unlucky could get.

Over time, the story of AIDS began to change – Congress pushed through the Ryan White Care Act – bipartisan legislation aimed at providing care for people with HIV and AIDS. And soon, new drug regimens offered a sense of hope.

Today, we have the tools to end the disease, but there are still hot spots across the country.

Lesson Plan 1: Emergence of the AIDS Crisis

Students will learn the historical context of the AIDS crisis in the United States in the 1980s, and where it stands today.

  • How discrimination against marginalized groups in American culture related to the spread of AIDS.
  • How social attitudes, public policy, and medical science interact during the spread of a virally transmitted disease.
  • How marginalized groups can respond to their discrimination through activism.
  • How the AIDS crisis related to the cultural and political context of the 1980s.
Essential questions
  • When AIDS first appeared in the early 1980s, why were its first victims stigmatized?
  • How did this stigma make it harder to fight the growth of the epidemic?
  • Why was Ryan White so effective at spreading awareness and sympathy for AIDS victims?
  • In recent times, what groups are most affected by the ongoing AIDS epidemic?
  • Common Core State Standards
    • CCSS.ELA.LITERACY.RI.11-12.3:Analyze a complex set of ideas or sequences of events and explain how specific individuals, ideas, or events interact or develop over the course of a text.
    • CCSS.ELA.LITERACY.RH.11-12.7:Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., visually, quantitatively, as well as in words) in order to address a question or solve a problem.
  • National Council for the Social Studies C3 Framework
    • D2.Civ.13.9-12.Evaluate public policies in terms of intended and unintended outcomes, and related consequences.
    • D2.His.4.9-12.Analyze complex and interacting factors that influenced the perspectives of people during different historical eras.
    • D2.His.14.9-12.Analyze multiple and complex causes and effect of events in the past.
  • AP U.S. History
    • Topic 9.2: Reagan and Conservatism

      Skill 3.C: Compare the arguments or ideas of two main sources.

      Theme 5: Politics and power (PCE).