UM's HIV effort offers ray of hope in Nigeria

It stresses pills, training, tests, and comforts the scorned


GWAGWALADA, Nigeria -- Fired by her boss and evicted by her landlord after she received a diagnosis of HIV, 30-year-old Felicia Nimji retreated to a sweltering, windowless, concrete room better suited for a jail cell.

Without money, she had little to eat, and there were no friends or family members to help. She had quit taking her antiretroviral pills. For weeks, she had been slipping away in the dim light, barely able to see, let alone believe, the sticker on the wall: "God who lifted me up will not let me down."

It was in this bleak setting that a University of Maryland-trained outreach team found her lying disconsolately on a blanket one afternoon.

"I don't have anyone to help me," she said, crying.

"We're here to help you," said Emily Umaru, an outreach coordinator.

Combating human immunodeficiency virus requires more than doling out pills. When it comes to treatment and care, it also means training health workers, fighting stigma, equipping laboratories, emphasizing testing, stressing adherence for those on pills and seeking out the scorned, people such as Nimji.

All of those elements are part of a federally funded program run here by UM's Institute of Human Virology. The success of such efforts is critical. Nigeria's HIV rate is still much lower than southern Africa's. But experts say an explosion of the disease in Nigeria, Africa's most populous nation with more than 130 million people, would be catastrophic.

Nigeria has the world's third-highest number of people with the AIDS virus, after India and South Africa. Despite an apparent drop in the national rate, to 4.4 percent of adults from 5.8 percent in 2001, few think the battle is anywhere near over in this teeming West African nation.

Since it began in early 2005, the Maryland program, with $31 million from the U.S. government this year, has pushed hard to make headway at seven locations around Nigeria, including this dusty town south of the capital, Abuja, in the country's center.

"It has given a lot of hope to the downtrodden," said Dr. Nandul Durfa, chairman of the sprawling government-run Gwagwalada Specialist Hospital.

Eighteen months ago, his hospital was treating 400 people for HIV, and patients had to pay $7 a month plus the costs of lab tests, large sums in a country with extreme poverty. Since then, enrollment has shot up, with nearly 4,000 patients receiving the life-extending pills and related lab services free.

Across Nigeria, the Maryland program was treating more than 16,000 patients by July, a third of the 50,000 who are receiving drugs paid for by the United States. Another 50,000 are getting pills from the Nigerian government with help from the World Bank and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.

With 3.6 million Nigerians infected, according to a United Nations estimate, even the rising number of patients being treated accounts for a small fraction of those who need antiretrovirals.

"We're getting there, slowly," said Dr. John Farley, a pediatric AIDS specialist and leader of the Institute of Human Virology-Nigeria.

Pills are only part of the solution, he said. The institute's program - called ACTION and funded through the Bush administration's $15 billion, five-year AIDS venture - has had to start with the basics to build up the public health infrastructure.

Before the program began, the Nigerian government had no machines to measure CD4 cells, basic devices that gauge when patients need to begin antiretrovirals and monitor their progress. At a cost of $100,000 each, the program has outfitted several new labs with advanced equipment, but not too advanced.

"It's very important that we don't bring in technology that is absolutely useless in terms of the future for Nigeria," said the institute's Dr. Alash'le Abimiku, who is from Nigeria. "We can't import engineers from the U.S. for repairs."

Training has focused on ensuring rudimentary standards in those labs, she said, adding, "If you do not make sure the temperature is right for the test, I'm sorry, you're going to get it wrong. They're very simple, very basic, but we spend a lot of time on that."

In part because the U.S.-funded program will not last forever - the Bush plan is halfway finished, though it could be extended - Nigerian doctors are being trained in how to identify and treat HIV-related ailments.

One morning, Dr. James Shepherd, a University of Maryland infectious-disease specialist, sat in an examination room as Dr. Oluokun Young, 32, pondered how to treat a man named Mohammed. The patient had advanced HIV and possibly tuberculosis. He was not eating much because of a painful oral thrush condition common in HIV sufferers.

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