America's Discarded AIDS Drugs Give Life -- and Hope -- in Africa

A US-based program to recycle the unused prescription medications of American AIDS patients is delivering "a miracle" to a small group of Nigerians with AIDS. The drugs are from patients who have either changed or abandoned their own medical regimens.

When measured against the weight of the AIDS epidemic in Nigeria, where 3.5 million people are infected, the Starfish Project hardly makes a dent. But the project gives life to a few and hope to others. The Starfish Projects gets its name from a tale of a person walking along a beach tossing starfish back into the ocean. The tale asks, "Do you really think you can help? There are millions of starfish on the beach," and then answers its own question: "It matters to this one." In the same way, the Project aims to "make a change in the lives of individuals, one by one," said Brian Boyle, a physician at the New York Presbyterian Hospital-Weill Medical College, Cornell University.

Yomi Ogun, a doctor at Nigeria's Ogun State University Teaching Hospital who oversees the treatment at the Sagamu community clinic, describes his patients as "ambassadors of prevention" for their willingness to speak about the disease and, thus, offer hope to others. "If a patient has no hope, why get tested when the only thing to look forward to is a life of stigma and discrimination?" Boyle asked. "Giving them the drugs opens that door for them."

Felicia Grant, an emergency nurse at St. Vincent's Hospital in Manhattan who tested HIV-positive in 1995, has been donating her unused medication since she heard of the charity nearly two years ago. She regularly meets patients who ask her what to do with their old medicines. "There are so many people even in the US who cannot afford these medications," she said. "But we can't use them here and it's really satisfying to see that people in Africa are helped."

Boyle and other health workers at Cornell screen the drugs, which are collected from donor patients in 40 health centers across the United States. The Starfish Project also teaches physicians in Nigeria effective ways to administer the drugs.

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