Taking the fight to HIV-Aids

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HIV is not Aids. And still, I rise.

I’m honoured to share this message with the hope that the millions who still suffer in humiliation and consumed by unparalleled fear of the unknown will find renewed hope and strength in the truth.

With all the information available on HIV, it’s quite concerning that many still regard the disease as a death sentence.

So wherever possible I continue to share information, despite all the deliberate efforts at tarnishing my image. You may ask why? I share my experience because when I have diagnosed HIV-positive in 1998, I was devastated to a point of wanting to commit suicide.

Looking back almost two decades ago, the main source of my suicidal thoughts was how I was diagnosed with no form of counselling, even though I had a nursing background.

And today I think of the millions of people who have died and the more than 30 million people infected by this virus.

But there has never been a time when fighting this disease has been of such a global policy concern. However, so much energy has been translated into so little hope.

It truly matters that the resources, energies and strategies being devoted to tackling this pandemic are not only sustained but are also fully focused on overcoming the disease.

But this can never be for as long as the HIV response is as commercialised as it is.

Most believe that by simply swallowing an anti-HIV drug daily will take away all the challenges that people infected with HIV still face daily. In South Africa, we are not immune to this global challenge. Statistics show that South Africa has the largest HIV epidemic in the world – as well as the largest antiretroviral treatment programme.

SA spends more than R15bn annually to run HIV- Aids programmes yet the amount of ignorance on the ground is disheartening.

I know this from the concerned emails and direct messages of people who plead in desperation that I don’t reveal their identity once they receive any counselling.

If indeed 2000 people become infected each day, maybe it’s time we reflect on the available statistics more comprehensively.

The Department of Health has a programme that seeks to view HIV in a holistic manner – but with much criticism from drug activists like the Treatment Action Campaign who have successfully advocated for HIV treatment pre-exposure (meaning one can take ARVs before unprotected sex and postexposure (once one has been exposed).

I have no qualms with people who choose that route to minimise the spread of HIV. My dilemma is in the amount spent on strategies that strengthen the failed strategy of secrecy around HIV infection.

Those people who become infected are not just numbers but human beings with ambitions and dreams.

Also ask who these people are. These people are you, me, our children, our relatives – people we know and love. Yet we still have those people who use words like “it will not happen to me”.

In my opinion, there are three kinds of people: those infected with HIV, those affected by HIV and those who are ignorant of whether they are infected or not.

Today we know more about HIV than we did 30 years ago.

We know that this viral infection forces you to look after your health by disciplining yourself continually.

There is a saying that “you are what you eat”. My question is what is the majority of South Africans eating? It’s a conversation for another day and please don’t think I’m referring to the beetroot and garlic drama.

My fellow black South Africans who are largely at risk of HIV infection, break their fast with fat cakes, lunch is kota, veggies are a delicacy for Sunday or weddings and funerals.

The scientists who discovered HIV said if you are infected with HIV it does not necessarily mean that you are already ill.

It can take years for someone who is infected with HIV to develop symptoms of a completely compromised immune system, which is what is known as Aids.

During this time, people who have HIV can lead normal and productive lives. One can only do this if they know their HIV status early on and also know how to cope with opportunistic infections like flu and diabetes.

The reasons why this pandemic is still spreading rapidly in our country, even with everyone’s best efforts, is not because there is no cure, no strategies or funds available – but because of the following factors in our communities:

•Lack of godly love, self-love, ubuntu;

•Self-discrimination and stigma;

•Socio-economic imbalances;

•Promiscuity in the name of culture;

•Sexual activity turned into entertainment;

•Lack of accurate information;

•Exploitation and violation of human rights;

•High unemployment (therefore people use
sex as a hobby);

•Poor access to healthcare services;

•Lack of family recreational facilities;

•No nutritional security and

•Denial.

This is to name but a few. All of the abovementioned are influenced by the lifestyles we lead and choices we make.

We can start contributing by changing the above by changing our attitudes and the choices we make in life.

Condoms and ARVs before, after and in-between will never rid us of infections until we invest in character development and remove the fear surrounding HIV.

Attitudes and values that we must instil upon individuals are:

•Respect yourself;

•Respect others and

•Responsibility for one’s actions.

It will take sacrifice, vision, commitment, time, energy and, most of all, the will to make this country a better place for all –not the privileged few.

But first, as individuals, we must be prepared to choose to make a difference. Let us not become victims of profit-making at the expense of our own kind but victors of this dreadful circumstance.

We have the resources and ability to solve all of our problems as Africans, if only we had the political will to acknowledge that the current approach is yielding one-sided results.

Let us bring wholeness to that African being who was raised and taught never to question the majority, let us realise that sometimes the majority means all the fools are on the same side. Dare to differ.

Criselda Dudumashe is a health activist

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