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HIV and AIDS stigma and discrimination in Nigeria

In this article, Olayide Akanni of the Journalists Against AIDS (JAAIDS) Nigeria relates the experience of  Late Abiagail with HIV and AIDS  stigma and diiscrimation in Nigeria

Remembering Abigail…

Abigail Obetan Atireni came into the limelight in 2002 after featuring
on Newsline, the popular feature package presented as part of the
Nigerian Television Authority(NTA) Network News. Abigail who was then
a Counsellor with the Lagos State Agency for the Control of AIDS
(LSACA),featured on the programme to enlighten the Nigerian populace
about living with HIV and the need to stop to the Stigmatization and
Discrimination of People Living with HIV.

Having been on the receiving end of the widespread epidemic of
HIV related Stigma and discrimination from family and closed friends,
Abigail courageously used the media platform to convey the need to
accept and relate with  people living with HIV with dignity.
She talked about her experience living with HIV, and the challenges of
caring for Rachel, her two-year old daughter who was also HIV positive.

Abigail’s passionate plea apparently fell on deaf ears. The next day,
a surprise awaited her. As her usual practice, Abigail had taken
Rachel to the pre-school she was attending in Lagos. At the entrance to
the school, Abigail was met by the Headmistress of the school who
informed her that Rachel could no longer be accepted in the school.

Her offence? According to the Headmistress, parents of Rachel’s
schoolmates had warned her against admitting Rachel into the
classroom. They did not want their children playing with Rachel.
They feared that their children might contract the virus as well.
The Headmistress also feared that parents will withdraw their children
from her school if she did not comply with their demands.

Dejected and frustrated, Abigail took Rachel home. Shortly after this
incidence, Rachel fell ill. She was admitted at the Paeadiatric Section
of the Lagos University Teaching Hospital (LUTH) where she was being
treated. At that time, access to peadiatric antiretroviral therapy
( ART) was limited as the National ART programme in Nigeria had only
just begun. A few weeks afterwards, Rachel died.

But Abigail moved on. Beneath her petite frame, was a resilient woman
who bore pain, trauma and rejection stoically as she struggled to
survive against all odds. She believed that HIV was not a stumbling
block. She drew strength from her faith in God, believing  rather
that a better definition of HIV was ‘He Intends Victory’ a term
she adopted from the name of a Faith based non governmental in the
US which provides spiritual and psychosocial support to people
living with HIV.

For her courage and determination in the face of those challenging
times, Abigail was honoured with the “Heroes Award for Stigma Fighters
at the 2003 edition of the Red Ribbon Awards, an event instituted by
Journalists Against AIDS ( JAAIDS) Nigeria to recognize outstanding
media and community contributions to the HIV/AIDS response in Nigeria .

Abigail was always willing to share her wealth of experience. From
Abigail, I learnt unfamiliar terms such as Rifampicin, and Isoniazid,
drugs used in the treatment of Tuberculosis (TB). Abigail shared with
me the realities and challenges of coping with TB and HIV. After she
tested HIV positive, she developed Tuberculosis and she almost lost
her life.

At the health care centre where she had gone to access TB treatment,
the health care workers simply prepared her for the worst, as they told
her she was dealing with a double tragedy and that her chances of
survival were slim.

Yet,she survived. Her  experience got me interested in Tuberculosis
issues and its rising incidence among people living with HIV in Nigeria.
Thankfully, she completed her TB treatment after eight months and she
was certified free. But,Abigail’s encounter with stigma and
discrimination was not over. She faced it from church members, her
immediate family and friends.

She stopped by our Lagos office often whenever she was in the area to
discuss with Omololu Falobi, myself and other colleagues. After I moved
to Abuja, I saw less of her, but assumed she was in good health.

In 2007, I was pleasantly surprised to see her walk into our Abuja
office. We exchanged pleasantries and talked about almost everything
under the sun. We couldn’t help but talk about our mutual friend
(and my late boss, Omololu Falobi). She talked about the court case she
was pursuing. Her relatives felt that she was not worthy of receiving
any of the inheritances willed to her by her parents due to the fact
that she was HIV positive and ‘close to her grave’. This was another
chapter in Abigail’s encounters with Stigmatisation.

Hard as she tried to maintain her calm mien, I noticed that all was
not well. Abigail was coughing intermittently-it was a deep throaty
cough and I had to confront my fears about her health.

Abigail confirmed my fears. She was coming from the hospital where she
had gone to undergo some TB tests. The results revealed that she had
developed a drug resistant strain of TB. That revelation scared me.
It seemed like a hopeless situation. I knew at that time that treatment
for Multi Drug Resistant TB (MDR-TB) was really expensive.

At that time, only two centres in the country had the required capacity
to conduct tests for Drug resistant TB. Besides, the World Health
Organisation (WHO) had only approved for a pilot MDR-TB treatment
programme in Nigeria.

Drugs for MDR-TB were guarded jealously. Worldwide, the magnitude of
the MDR-TB problem was only just unfolding and the debate was growing on
whether or not to quarantine those with MDR-TB.

We discussed with some officials in the National TB and Leprosy Control
Programme and WHO Nigeria to see how she could access drugs under
the pilot programme. However, approvals for this process could take
some time. On the other hand, she also contacted a US based Non
Governmental Organisation who were willing to support her treatment.
However, that would require travelling to the United States.

While awaiting enrolment on the pilot programme, Abigail also began to
pursue the option of seeking comprehensive treatment outside the country.
Unfortunately, she was refused a US Visa. I also lost touch with her
after then and I never heard from her again.

On February 7th, I learnt that Abigail had died. Abigail died on
January 15th and had been buried. I was deeply saddened about her death.
Not only because I lost touch with her, but because I felt she didn’t
deserve all the hate, discrimination and rejection that she suffered.
No one deserved such. Yet, she bore it all gracefully. I know she hoped
that in her lifetime HIV related stigma and discrimination will become
a thing of the pastt. But, we know that is not the case.

Abigail had a dream of a world where people will not be judged by
their HIV status, but by the content of their character. For her sake,
I hope you and I can make that dream a reality.

Note: A Commendation Service organized by the Human Right and Justice
Work Group of the Lagos State Agency for the Control of AIDS (LSACA)
will be held in memory of Abigail Obetan Atireni on Thursday February
17 2011 at the Amuwo Odofin Council, Road 41 Festac, Lagos.
Time: 11.00am

Olayide Akanni
Journalists Against AIDS (JAAIDS) Nigeria