Yinka Jegede-Ekpe, sees her life as a series of battles, but her story follows a familiar pattern: She runs into huge obstacles, she wages tough fights, and she emerges unscathed -- mostly. \nJegede-Ekpe is HIV positive. But her fights aren't always against the human immunodeficiency virus. Her adversaries are almost always people. \nJust as HIV-positive Americans were met with widespread rejection and fear in the early to mid-1980s -- many are still experiencing it to this day -- Jegede-Ekpe, 25, has faced scorn, panic, bullying, and anxiety in Nigeria ever since she learned of her infection six years ago. \nFor her decisions to declare her status publicly, to educate Nigerians, and to advocate for the rights of those living with HIV and AIDS in Nigeria, Jegede-Ekpe was named one of four 2004 Reebok Human Rights Award recipients on Monday at the UN. Yesterday afternoon she was to talk about her challenges in the Snyder Auditorium at the Harvard School of Public Health, which is overseeing a US$25 million AIDS treatment and prevention program in Nigeria. \nJegede-Ekpe has much to say about what it is to live with HIV in Africa today, the epicenter of the global pandemic. It begins with the moment she found out she was infected. She was 19, living in the southwestern Nigerian city of Ilesha, north of Lagos, and she had rashes all over her body. She took a blood test. \n"The lab scientist started looking at me like I was someone from another world, an outcast," she said one day recently. "I found out I was positive. I couldn't believe it. I thought I was practicing safe sex. My thought was, I was going to die immediately. The first, second, third day passed, and I didn't die. So I got myself out of bed, and I called my boyfriend, a medical student." \nShe couldn't contain her anger. "My mind was such that I was going to kill him; he infected me. I told him he must go for a test, and he did." \nJegede-Ekpe paused. "It came out negative." \nShe thought about other potential exposures. She had not had sex with anyone else. Then she remembered a tooth extraction. She visited the dentist, took a look at the unsanitary conditions and knew that someone else's infected blood had been passed to her during the procedure. The dentist, shaken by the news, immediately started sterilizing his equipment. \nPeople started hearing about her diagnosis. Fellow choir members at her church asked that she no longer sing with them; she decided to leave the church. At the Wesley Nursing School, where she was studying to be a nurse, the head of the school told her she should drop out. \nJegede-Ekpe stood firm. \nIn her meeting with the administrator, he said, "What is your future if you are HIV positive?" \n"My future is in the hand of God, not in the hands of you," she responded. \n"There's no future in nursing for you," he said. \n"I'm not going to leave," Jegede-Ekpe said. \nAnd she didn't. The school made it difficult for her to stay. The administration put a lock on the women's bathroom and refused to give her a key. Most of her classmates wouldn't associate with her. Lecturers, she said, "looked at me as though I was a ghost. They thought I would die before five years. It is surprising to them I am alive now." \nIn 2001, she graduated with her nursing degree. At the time, she had another decision to make: going public with her status. \n"I told my mother that I was coming out," Jegede-Ekpe said. Her mother resisted, but after hearing how important it was for her daughter -- the middle child of five siblings -- the mother gave her blessing. \nJegede-Ekpe said she needed to speak out because most people in Nigeria were in denial about the disease, and that was killing them. \n"When people like myself come out, you see the faces of the epidemic for the first time. I'm not a fact or figure. And they can see that people like me can live a normal life," Jegede-Ekpe said. \nAdeola Olunloyo, a Nigerian television journalist who met Jegede-Ekpe on a UNICEF-sponsored tour on AIDS in the US, invited Jegede-Ekpe in 2002 to her talk show called Youth Forum. \n"She blew them away," Olunloyo said. "She held the audience spellbound. You can't believe the effect it had. We were all talking about HIV, but no one had seen anyone come forward. And here was a person so brave and so pretty, well, it made a huge impression." \nStephen Dickerman, Reebok's director of the human rights award program, said that Jegede-Ekpe was a compelling selection because of her courage. \n"To understand her, you have to look at her at age 19, when she was diagnosed, and all the bravery and single-mindedness it took to do what she did," Dickerman said. \nWhile she has been focused on drawing attention to people living with HIV and AIDS, her health also has been a concern. In 2001, a friend who hadn't seen her for a while was shocked at her weight loss and badgered UNICEF to buy antiretroviral drugs for Jegede-Ekpe. Jegede-Ekpe had been acting as a consultant to UNICEF. \nThe charity agreed, and Jegede-Ekpe's health gradually improved. Her CD4 count, which measures a body's ability to fight off diseases, had been at 160; medical guidelines call for antiretroviral treatment when CD4 counts dip below 200. A healthy person's CD4 count is around 800. Jegede-Ekpe's CD4 is now at 270. \nJegede-Ekpe, who is married to another leading AIDS activist in Nigeria, spends much of her energy running the Nigerian Community of Women Living With HIV/AIDS, which she helped start. \n"I want this to reach a point when I can tell a neighbor that I have HIV or AIDS just like I would tell them I have malaria," she said. \nHer biggest supporter is her mother, she said. Even though she educated her mother about AIDS, and even though she playfully dismisses her mother's belief that prayer can cure the virus, Jegede-Ekpe lives for her mother's daily phone calls. \nHer mother, it turned out, is one person she does not have to fight. \n"My mother is very, very proud of me," Jegede-Ekpe said. "She called me this morning, she calls me every day, and says, `How are you? Don't stress yourself.' She told me not so long ago, `I'm happy that you came out and told everyone you have HIV. That is what God sent you here to do.'" \nJohn Donnelly can be reached at email@example.com.
PHOTO: NY TIMES
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