From the depths of distress, disillusionment, dejection and the certainty of untimely death occasioned by HIV infection through blood transfusion at the tender age of 12, Gloria Asuquo, has risen to become a vibrant, assertive and ambitious young woman who is taking a decisive and incisive battle to one of the world’s most dreaded infectious disorders – HIV/AIDS.
In an encounter with Sola Ogundipe in Abuja, the energetic 24-year-old recounted the frustrations of living as a pauper in addition to the ignominy of HIV stigma and discrimination.
Today, Gloria who once contemplated death until sheer luck and doggedness turned her fortunes around and brought unhindered access to the elusive, life-saving treatment has undergone a transformation. The same HIV infection that took her to the brink of total despair is today a source of her blessing. How did it happen? She tells it all in this encounter.
Living with HIV stigma
I’m a young person diagnosed HIV positive at 12. I was in Primary six going to JSS1. I got infected through blood transfusion. The stigma was so much I couldn’t bear it. There were drugs at that time, but they were too expensive for my parents to afford. Each time my father raised the money to pay for my drugs, my mother would challenge him. Why are you giving her the money? she would ask. We know that she would soon die. Why is she taking the drugs? Why are we wasting money? My mother went to the Church and told the Reverend who announced my status to the community.
He advised I should be taken to one of the General Hospitals and abandoned there to die. But my father refused to heed such advice. Rather, he challenged the Reverend to take one of his four children to the hospital and abandon her there to die first, only then would he obey the instruction. The pressure became too much.
My mother separated me from the rest of the family. She demarcated my own part of the house separate from the others. The stigma became too much.
Escape from home
One day I could not bear it again. The pressure was too much for me to bear. I had to break the window and jumped out to escape from home at the age of 12. I escaped to an unknown village called Oki. I went to Jabi Park in Abuja, I had only N800. I didn’t know where to go, but just wanted to leave and even die.
I wanted to die. I was in the bush; I had stopped using my drugs which at that time cost N15, 000 per month. Test for CD4 count was N6, 000, viral load N12, 000. Where was I going to get that kind of money? I wasn’t working, I just told God to let me die.
Before then, I went to NTA and shared my story. I told them I was HIV positive; I wanted to declare my status to the world. They said I should cover my face, but I said no. I wanted the world to know my story so that if I die, everyone would know what killed me. Breaking the stigma is an individual thing. If you want to come out to testify, nobody can take that away from you
Then I met Dr. Anthony Agu, a lecturer at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. When he asked about my parents, I burst into tears. He took me to the University and I told him my story. He took me to his house, gave me a room to stay. But he told me not to disclose my status to his family. He enabled me continue my education and in 1996, I finished my school.
Back to treatment
Dr. Agu then told me that he heard that the drugs were now free that I should go and try. So I went back to Gwagwalada General Hospital where I met Dr. Ajayi. When he asked if I had been taken my drugs, I said yes. I lied to him because I was afraid that if I told him I had not been on drugs, he would send me away.
But he placed me on the drugs. That night I went back to Nsukka, but never went back home. Dr. Ajayi got all my details and related to Dr. Pat Matemilola and Professor Babatunde Oshotimehin who were all looking for me. Eventually, it was Godwin Odemije of Radio Nigeria that came to look for me, and brought me back home. In 2006, I developed typhoid and ovarian cyst. Doctors said I would be operated upon because I stopped using my drugs for a number of years. To the glory of God, I’m still on firstline drugs.
HIV infection as blessing
God first, but the treatment has kept me alive till today. If there were no free drugs, by now, I would have been a forgotten issue. People would have forgotten me, my name would not be written anywhere. HIV has become a blessing to me. I am sitting with important people. If not for HIV, I would not meet Ministers, and Ambassadors and so many important people. If not for HIV, I would not have ever fly in an aircraft. I’m proud to be HIV positive. Today, I’m a testimony in my family, there is no meeting at which they do not seek my opinion. I’m proud that I’m HIV positive.
Make treatment available
I’m still pleading to the Ambassadors and everyone in the country to make these drugs accessible especially the youths and women. We are the most vulnerable and do not have anywhere to go. We are tomorrow’s leaders. We may be driven out when we are diagnosed with HIV because the general belief is that HIV is contracted through promiscuity. But HIV can be contracted through many ways.
The three zeros
If the drugs are made to be more available, only then can we truly have the three zeros, that is, zero related deaths, zero new infection and zero stigma. As a young person I cannot come out but keep quiet and spread it, but if we provide access to treatment, give free education, employment and there is no stigma, I bet you, these three zeros will be achieved.
I’m dreaming to become a medical doctor. I want to achieve this. HIV has nothing to do with my future. I would match it and overcome it. I need you to help me achieve my dream and also to find a cure to HIV. I want my name to be great, so that it will be said that Gloria Asuquo found a cure to HIV. I want a scholarship so that I can achieve my goal.