The morning I was diagnosed with HIV was like most others. I had just left my hotel and was heading for the International convention center to attend the Fourth National AIDS conference in Nigeria. It was May 2004, 10 years ago this month.
The day before, I had just given a presentation on HIV and men who have sex with men (MSM is the term to describe men who have sex with other men but do not identify as gay). I was sharing the stories of the friends I had lost to HIV. The most memorable was my best friend, Ibrahim.
Ibrahim was a year ahead of me at the University of Lagos. We connected immediately the first time we met. He was everything I wanted to be: tall and handsome, with swagger, a great sense of humor and a sharp intellect. It was a shock for me when one evening in June of 2002, I got a call that Ibrahim had been in the hospital for over two weeks and that his condition was deteriorating. Ibrahim had recently been complaining of a series of mysterious ailments, but I had no idea he was so sick.
When I walked into the room, what I saw changed my life completely. He was like a bone. His eyes were open but empty, his hands fragile, and his smile was that of someone barely hanging on to life. I rushed to his side, held his hands and could not hold back the tears. I still remember them burning my cheeks. He told me he had AIDS and that the doctor said he would not see the end of the week.
As I left the hospital, I was devastated, but held onto a promise I had made to him: that I would do everything in my power to get the message out about preventing HIV. At the time, I had no idea what HIV was. But I had that image of Ibrahim dying in my head. The image stayed with me, inspiring me to learn everything I could about HIV/AIDS.
I joined Alliance Rights Nigeria, a community-based organization that works with MSM in Nigeria. By 2003, I was their Program Director. That was what brought me to speak at the National AIDS conference in 2004, the first openly gay man to speak publicly at an event like this in Nigeria.
On that morning in May, I had just arrived at the conference when friends asked if I had ever been tested for HIV. I was terrified and sure that I was positive. I'd lost so many friends after Ibrahim, some of whom I had dated. After much convincing, I went into the testing booth. Fifteen minutes later, I emerged with the knowledge that I am HIV positive. I was just 29, and I thought my life was over. Over the next few weeks, I stopped eating and prepared to die.
In Nigeria in 2004, HIV was still highly stigmatized, particularly within the gay community. There was limited access to treatment, and those available had devastating side effects. (Ten years later, with advances in drug technology, pharmaceutical companies have been able to produce drugs that have fewer side effects.) I chose to hide my diagnosis for five years, forgoing treatment. I could not bear the shame and the rejection that I thought would come with disclosure.
Though I remained silent about my own diagnosis, I was also determined that HIV would stop with me. I was busy promoting the little I knew about prevention. I was doing community mobilization around condom usage. I was providing information on how to test, where to test and what being positive means, yet failing to live out my own positive messages to others.
It was the determination to keep Ibrahim's memory alive and to slow the spread of the virus that led me to set up The Independent Project in Nigeria in 2005. With friends, we started one of the most aggressive campaigns against HIV within the MSM/Gay community. We were the first organization to use the term Gay instead of MSM; we conducted in-person community outreach and were engaged with government on discussions of policy.
This month, I look back 10 years. It has been a journey filled with many emotions. I am lucky to now have access to some of the best treatments in the world thanks to the National Health Service in The United Kingdom, where I now live. But there are over 10 million people in the world that must wait to have access to treatment.
With over 34 million people still living with HIV, we have a lot of work to do. For example, in Sub-Saharan Africa, women bear the burden of the virus and children are still born with the HIV; in Europe, MSM and injected drug users are still infected at higher rates and face stigma and discrimination; and in America, the burden of HIV is especially challenging in the African American community, particularly among women and gay men.
We've made dramatic strides against HIV/AIDS over the past 10 years, but as we look forward we need more than just political willpower to fight the virus; we also need to increase funding so everyone has access to treatment. We know that for every one person we put on treatments, we have saved at least two from becoming infected.
We also need to reduce and fight the culture that promotes stigma and discrimination that kept me from being tested for years. We know now that being aware of one's status can safe one's life.
We need to keep our promise of trying to approach a rate of zero infection, especially in the transmission of mother to child.
I am here today 10 years later, living well and sharing my story so that I can fulfill my promise to Ibrahim of preventing others from dying of AIDS.
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