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An AIDS warrior's legacy: Heart, tenacity

From Christy Feig and Saundra Young
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- To see white-haired Father Angelo D'Agostino, an 80-year-old Jesuit and doctor, you would almost certainly underestimate his strengths.

He looked like a quiet, gentle priest, only about 5 feet tall and stocky, with an easy, infectious laugh. But beneath the priestly vestments he was one of the fiercest fighters you would ever meet when it came to protecting HIV-infected children in Nairobi, Kenya. He would take on anyone, and he did. He was their fearless defender.

As we observe World AIDS Day today, it's appropriate to remember a man who brought heart and tenacity to the fight. D'Agostino died November 20 of a heart attack following surgery after he was hospitalized for abdominal pain.

"In the very positive sense, he was somebody who could get you to do anything, it was very difficult to say no to him. He was like a pit bull," says Dr. Anthony Fauci of the National Institutes of Health and a longtime friend of "Father D'Ag," as everyone knew him. (Watch a visit Father Angelo D'Agostino. Video )

In the early 1990s, he created an orphanage called Nyumbani -- Swahili for "home" -- for homeless HIV-infected children in Nairobi. When the government wouldn't let them go to school with other children, he sued and won. When the children started dying from AIDS because they couldn't afford the drugs that would keep them alive, and the cemetery behind the school was getting full of tiny caskets, he fought drug companies and the government to get the children affordable medicine. He needed a lab to monitor the children's health and he couldn't afford one, so he built one of the best in the region from scratch. He fought tirelessly for his children. He was afraid of no one. (Where Have All the Parents Gone?)

The United Nations says the vast majority of the 4.3-million people newly infected with HIV are in sub-Saharan Africa. But AIDS is not just about Africa anymore. The economic powerhouse of India now has 5 million people infected, more than any other country. Experts are also concerned about China, Indonesia, and Eastern Europe, where the disease is skyrocketing. (Watch how the AIDS fight goes on worldwide. Video )

The United States has not contained the epidemic either. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 1 million people in America are living with HIV, and about 250,000 of them don't know it. African Americans make up nearly half of all new infections but only 13 percent of the population. "We're beginning to see the face of the epidemic changing. AIDS is increasingly becoming a black disease in the United States," says Dr. Kevin Fenton of the CDC.

To contain the epidemic will take more people like Father D'Ag: people with guts who are willing to make sacrifices.

"For me," he said in a 2000 interview, "it's the combination of a long life of study in both medicine and the priesthood and as far as I'm concerned it's the most effective, most rewarding work that I've done in either medicine or priesthood."

His children, who often saw more strife in just a few years than many of us see in a lifetime, were his constant companions, and they undoubtedly learned from his teachings.

He liked to tell the story "Once I went up with a group of them in an airplane ride around the city, and when we got above the clouds the little fellow next to me turned around and said 'Are we gonna see Jesus now?' He thought he was in heaven."

Heaven is something the children at Nyumbani often learned about the hard way. Before Father D'Ag got much-needed AIDS medicine for the children, he lost about a child a month to the disease. The children would gather for the funeral at Nyumbani and carry the casket to the cemetery behind the school until that plot was full, then they moved to another cemetery in the city.

When the casket was lowered into the ground, the children would line up for an African ritual and toss handfuls of dirt on the casket.

Earlier this week, it was Father D'Ag's casket they tossed dirt onto, their way of sending him to heaven.

Christy Feig and Saundra Young are producers for CNN Medical News in Washington.

With some of his kids at Nyumbani, Father Angelo D'Agostino celebrated his 50th anniversary as a priest in August 2005.


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