In 1996, an increase in the availability of antiretroviral therapy was a determinant factor in slowing down the AIDS mortality rate within the United States. In developing countries, however, medication remained expensive and difficult to acquire, and the number of newly infected cases and AIDS-related deaths continued to grow. During that time, Aguais was a counselor at the HIV Clinic at St Vincent’s Hospital and Medical Center in New York City. He began collecting unused life-saving medicines that were being discarded due to the often changing treatment regimens of patients.
He asked friends and patients to follow suit and pass on any unused, unexpired medications. As chance would have it, Aguais met a woman from his native Venezuela who had traveled to the United States to plea for the medicine she desperately needed to survive. For Aguais, this woman represented those impacted by the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the developing world. Motivated to help, he started AID for AIDs. The organization can send the collected medicine to those without access in economically deprived nations as humanitarian aid. Today, AFA operates the largest HIV Medicine Recycling Program in the world through their AIDS Treatment Access Program and has distributed more than 140 million dollars worth of medication.
AFA has drawn the support of many prominent names, including artist Tony Bechara, designers Carolina Herrera and Yliana Yepez, and renowned biologist William Haseltine, a former Harvard professor who conducted vital HIV/AIDs research in the 1980s. Today, Haseltine’s wife, Venezuelan philanthropist María Eugenia Maury, serves as President of the Board of AFA. She’s been tied to the organization since 2001 and feels strong about AFA’s mission and its commitment to underserved communities. Most recently, AFA began working with indigenous groups, which Maury is particularly proud of: “Indigenous communities are very vulnerable, and we want to place a lot of attention on these groups. We started with Mexico, where we’re targeting such collectives and are working to empower indigenous women. In Panama, we’re the first group to take medication to the Kuna Indians. They’re a closed off group, but little by little, they’ve allowed us into their midst. It’s important for us to target these forgotten communities,” she says.
AFA is also responsible for ¿Cuánto Sabes de VIH y Sida? (How Much Do You Know Abour HIV/AIDS?), a program that uses peer-to-peer education techniques and aims to prevent the spread of HIV by promoting responsible and healthy sexuality. The program has reached over 143,000 adolescents, through more than 9,000 peer educators and close to 1,100 teachers across 362 schools in eight different countries. For Maury, education is the most pivotal tool in reducing the stigma and discrimination that surrounds HIV/AIDS patients. “People don’t like to have discussions about this disease. Even with access to testing, some would rather not know they are infected. They are terrified by the stigma and discrimination that come along with HIV and AIDS. In Latin American countries, it continues to be a taboo subject. A lot of people—even the highly educated—don’t fully understand how it’s transmitted, prevented or treated. Teaching people how to have responsible sexual lives is the key,” she says.
In New York, where Haseltine and Maury live, AFA works to bring testing, awareness and case management to the immigrant population. Since unused medications can only be sent out of the United States as aid, AFA is not allowed to distribute medication within the states. AFA also works with different consulates in New York. By visiting these facilities, they can reach large groups of immigrants, and offer them testing.
AFA’s power is not only felt by the patients they have touched directly. Family members of those living with HIV/AIDS are also impacted—for the better—through their efforts. For Maury, meeting people whose lives were saved by AFA, is touching. “Years ago, I went on a visit to the first office we opened in Santo Domingo. I met a woman who had come in to pick up her medication. She immediately grabbed my hands and said, ‘I want to thank you, and this organization. It is because of you that I am alive and that I can continue to work and provide for my family.’ It really made me emotional,” she says. “I get such satisfaction from the work that we do. We can bring hope and life to people.” ■