Things are crazy around here,” says Jesus Aguais, 40. The response to his nonprofit Aid for AIDS International (AFA), the largest HIV-drugs recycler in the world, has been overwhelming—and Aguais wouldn’t have it any other way. “I never thought it would grow into this because I never thought we would still have this problem,” he admits. The problem: An estimated 80 percent of HIV-positive people living in developing countries have no access to health care or antiretrovirals.

In 1996, when Aguais, an ACT UP alum, worked as a treatment educator in New York City, an elderly Venezuelan immigrant showed up at his office begging for medications for her HIV-positive son and daughter-in-law. He reached into his desk drawer and handed her a three-month supply. “I had been collecting pills from positive people who gave them up because they switched regimens, could not tolerate the side effects or, sadly, passed away,” he says.

Not wanting to waste the stockpiles—and forbidden by law from passing them out in the United States—Aguais created AFA in order to house and distribute unused meds to people in 27 countries in Asia, Africa and, especially, the Caribbean and South and Central America. But Aguais emphasizes that AFA is not a faceless mail-order service. It follows up with recipients, helps train medics and stresses the importance of HIV advocacy, education and prevention through worldwide grassroots programs. In 11 years, AFA has legally donated $40 million worth of treatment and saved tens of thousands of lives. But funding is the organization’s biggest barrier.“Private donors and foundations give us money,” Aguais says. “But we struggle.”

He hopes his increasing visibility will translate into bigger bucks. Over the past year, AFA has been featured in glossies Marie Claire and People en Español, and this past September, Aguais was dubbed a “Medical Marvel hero” by news giant CNN. Although extremely grateful for the attention, he finds the praise a tad unsettling. “This work is about life and death,” Aguais stresses. “This is what I am supposed to do. So, don’t call me a hero.” We’ll try, but it might be hard.     

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