Five Prominent People Who Changed the Face of HIV/AIDS

By Tim Leach —

HIV and AIDS have gone through a fairly large perception change since the first death at the virus’ hands in 1959. Initially dismissed as a problem only in the gay community, it is now widely accepted as the horrendous killer it has always been and AIDS tests are rightly promoted as vital for all sexually active individuals. More than 25,000,000 people have died from HIV and AIDS and many more carry the virus, but some of the deaths and suffering have not been in vain as they have helped change the worldwide perception of the disease. Here’s a few of them.

Ryan White
Through his landmark legal battle with the school system, Ryan White (1971-1990) is credited with forcing AIDS issues onto the public agenda at a time when it was widely being both ignored and misunderstood. Born a hemophiliac, Ryan was treated with Factor VIII – a blood product formed from the blood of non-hemophiliacs – to manage the bleeding. It turned out that this was tainted with the HIV virus.

Despite being healthy for most of his childhood, he fell seriously ill in the winter of 1984, and was diagnosed with AIDS during a partial-lung removal. The disease was still in its early stages of understanding, associated exclusively with the gay communities of New York and San Francisco where it had first been diagnosed, and only recently associated with the HIV virus. As such, HIV tests were uncommon and much of the blood supply was tainted (it has been estimated that nearly 90% of hemophiliacs treated between 1979 and 1984 became infected with HIV). White was given 6 months to live by doctors.

Upon feeling better, his parents tried to get Ryan back into school, but their bid was blocked by staff who did not understand that AIDS was not spread through non-sexual contact. Although scientists knew it was a blood disease, there was a lot of misinformation about the disease, and as recently as 1983 it had been reported that “household contact may transmit HIV”. After an 8-month legal battle, White was allowed to return to school to the horror of parents and some staff – many parents withdrew their children and started an alternative school. After an unhappy spell at the school where White was made to feel deeply uncomfortable, he moved on to another where he was accepted by many who had been better educated about the disease.

Because of the publicity of the legal battle, White became nationally recognized, meeting celebrities such as Michael Jackson, Elton John, Phil Donahue and President Reagan. Four months after Ryan’s 1990 death, Congress enacted The Ryan White Comprehensive AIDS Resources Emergency Act in his honor.

Rock Hudson
Rock Hudson’s homosexuality was a closely guarded secret, and the romantic leading man’s image was carefully crafted, well aware that his sexuality could ruin his career. For this reason, when he was first diagnosed with AIDS in 1984, his management claimed it was liver cancer. One year later, and two months before his death, a visibly deteriorating Hudson admitted he was suffering from AIDS. At the time, the disease was associated with – as E-online put it – “sodomites, Haitians, junkies and other marginalized people, not upstanding Americans like movie stars.” Rock Hudson was among the first famous people to die from the disease, and was partially responsible for making AIDS and HIV testing a mainstream issue. As Morgan Fairchild said: “Rock Hudson’s death gave AIDS a face.”

Ilka Tanya Payan
Ilka Tanya Payan was a Dominican actress (she played a small part in Scarface) and later a prominent lawyer practicing immigration law. In 1986, an HIV test proved positive, but she kept her status quiet for a long time. In 1993 she publicly admitted her condition – making her one of the first Latino celebrities to reveal their HIV positive status. Latin America generally believed that AIDS was a disease that only affected homosexuals, and Payan’s heterosexuality challenged this. For the remaining 3 years of her life, the former actress devoted her life to educating the public about the realities of HIV and AIDS, and she was given the honor of being chosen as a featured speaker for the United Nations World AIDS Day panel.

Freddie Mercury
Front man for the band Queen, Freddie Mercury was possibly the most high profile celebrity to succumb to the AIDS virus. According to Jim Hutton, Mercury’s partner, he had a positive AIDS test in the spring of 1987, but it was only 4 years later, after a dogged perusal by the British gutter press that he admitted that he had the deadly disease. Just over a day later, Freddie Mercury died, and although he has been criticized for keeping his condition a secret (it has been argued he could have done a great deal for AIDS awareness and fund-raising by talking openly about it), posthumously he has done a great deal for spreading the word for AIDS tests and HIV awareness. The remaining members of Queen founded The Mercury Phoenix Trust and organized The Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert for AIDS Awareness which featured the likes of Robert Plant, Elton John, Metallica, David Bowie, Guns N’ Roses, George Michael and Liza Minnelli performing for 72,000 at Wembley Stadium, broadcast in 76 countries to an estimated audience of 1 billion people.

Magic Johnson
Basketball legend Magic Johnson is without doubt the most prominent sportsman to have had a positive HIV test. During a physical before the 91-92 NBA season, Johnson tested positive, and immediately announced he would retire and dedicate his life to battling the deadly disease. He wrote a book on safe sex, and partnered with Dr Lynn Montana to help educate young people about the dangers of HIV. He also set up the Magic Johnson Foundation to spread the word. Perhaps the greatest contribution Johnson made was debunking the  ‘homosexual myth’ – as a prominent heterosexual athlete, Magic Johnson is proof that AIDS can affect anyone – and that positive HIV testing needn’t be the end of a person’s life – indeed, he made a comeback as a player for the Lakers in 1996 – five years after his first retirement.

AIDS and HIV have gone a long way from being a taboo discussion point and are now moving towards getting the attention they deserves. It’s just a shame it took so many deaths, and so much campaigning to put regular HIV testing on the international agenda.

Tim Leach is the marketing manager of USA Lab Testing, providers of confidential HIV tests.

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