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Many of the photographs Craig Atenidegbe took during a visit to his native Nigeria in August show children with smiling faces. Behind their smiles, though, are lives that have been affected directly or indirectly by HIV⁄AIDS in a country with one of the highest infection rates in the world.

‘‘I was moved, I was downcast,” Atenidegbe said of his trip. ‘‘No one would [want to] bear witness to that.”
Atenidegbe is trying to ensure future generations will not. He took his month-long trip as head of Network for Humanity, a nonprofit group he founded dedicated to improving lives of Nigerians living with HIV⁄AIDS through care, education and services.

‘‘I can’t shy away from such a thing,” said Atenidegbe, a Burtonsville resident. ‘‘It’s my passion, it’s my calling. It’s what makes me happy.”

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Atenidegbe’s visit took him to the cities of Lagos, Ile-Ife and Ilesha, where he worked with HIV⁄AIDS patients and children who were orphaned because of the disease and met with local health consultants and nongovernmental organizations. He described what he saw as a ‘‘sorry situation” and ‘‘helpless and hopeless,” much worse than the last time he visited.

Nigeria is home to nearly 162 million people, making it the most populous nation in Africa. It was also home to 2.9 million people with HIV at the end of 2005, according the most recent statistics from AVERT, a British-based international HIV and AIDS charity. (The United States, with more than twice as many people as Nigeria, had between 1 million and 1.3 million people living with the disease at the end of 2004, according to the newest information from AVERT.)

More than 200,000 people died of the disease in Nigeria in 2005, orphaning 930,000 children. Normally upbeat, Atenidegbe, a father himself, turned solemn when talking about the orphans. ‘‘They have rights to enjoy life just like any other kids in the world,” he said. ‘‘We have to be there for them.”

Part of reversing the HIV⁄AIDS trend in Nigeria is changing Nigeria itself, Atenidegbe said. The country has the natural and human resources to develop and change, but corruption in the government keeps the elite enriched and in power while the rest of the population has no drinking water and electricity, he said. HIV⁄AIDS thrives among the impoverished because of a lack of education and an ignorance toward the disease and the risky behaviors that can lead to it, Atenidegbe said.

‘‘Stigmatization and discrimination of HIV-infected or -affected individuals is one of the major challenges facing the care of people with HIV. It also affects disclosure and access to care,” said Ebunoluwa Adejuyigbe, an associate professor of pediatrics at Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, in an e-mail. Adejuyigbe met Atenidegbe while she was a visiting scholar at the Johns Hopkins University earlier this year and worked with him on his recent trip.

The two cited many specific reasons for Nigeria’s high incidence of HIV⁄AIDS. Testing centers are uncommon in Nigeria, and HIV-positive people do not reveal their illness out of fear of ostracism from the community, Atenidegbe said.

Deaths of extended family members from the disease have disrupted the ‘‘traditional safety net” that might help prevent the spread of the disease, Adejuyigbe added. Those with the disease, fearful of dying alone, often spread the disease to other partners without telling them they are infected, Atenidegbe said. ‘‘Many people have accepted HIV as a death sentence,” he said.
With Network for Humanity, Atenidegbe is hoping to change that. In addition to educating those infected with HIV⁄AIDS, the organization is working to de-stigmatize the disease among Nigerians.

The group also emphasizes helping HIV⁄AIDS patients live normal lives despite their disease, offering them schooling, vocational training, counseling, support groups and community centers. On Atenidegbe’s recent trip, Network for Humanity provided school uniforms, transportation to school and medication for 50 children, and he said 2,000 to 3,000 children are on a waiting list for similar services. The organization also supplied infant formula for motherless orphans and gave HIV-infected mothers who lost their husbands a small line of credit to establish or expand their businesses.

As Network for Humanity hopes to continue sending money, medicine and newer medical equipment to communities in need in Nigeria, Atenidegbe remained modest about his efforts.

‘‘The children were looking at us like we’re God. We’re not God,” he said. ‘‘We are just human beings showing compassion.”