A few days ago I read the story of a man who hanged himself in Port-Harcourt, Nigeria, because he was diagnosed as having HIV.  The story broke my heart in to a million pieces.  Rhetorically, I asked myself: “Who counseled this man when he was diagnosed? What was running through his mind?” We may never know.  But we should ask these questions, and work to answer them as best we can.  So: What went wrong between him being tested and ending his life?  When speculation is all we have, we must speculate in the context of what we already know.

One often hears stories of tactless testers who deliver HIV test results in crude or even life-threatening manners, thereby painting a picture of doom to clients that does not reflect the realities of living with HIV when one is appropriately medicated and supported.  Furthermore, there is stigma.  I personally have heard stigmatizing comments about HIV from misguided family members, friends, and even colleagues.  This passive ostracization of people living with HIV often leads to active alienation of real people with real illness who need support from these same people.  These factors contribute to a greater injustice: misinformation and ignorance about what HIV and AIDS might be, and how it is managed, any of these factors – or perhaps, all of them - could have tilted our man over the edge.  We simply can’t be sure.

We have come a long way from the days when HIV always led to AIDS, then subsequently to certain death.  To this day, most people can recall the iconic pictures of Princess Diana holding the hands of people diagnosed with AIDS.  The pictures were heart-warming, and thrilling in a way: a Princess was touching the hands of the world modern pariahs of the time.  HIV/AIDS was especially horrifying in all that it represented: a near-certain doom.

But these days, the life expectancy for people living with HIV/AIDS has improved exponentially.  Many people do not even know that amongst their community, there are a number of people living with these illnesses who are otherwise healthy and happy.  Some people have been living with HIV/AIDS up to 20 years at this stage, and have even been able to have kids who are all without the virus.  With the appropriate drugs and medical guidance, vertical transmission can be mitigated in families where HIV/AIDS is present.

My job involves interacting with and providing clinical advice to health personnel that offer care to clients seeking testing, education, and management of HIV/AIDS.  People newly diagnosed as HIV-positive people need all the appropriate support, counseling and care they can get to ensure adherence to their medication schedules and ensure safe practice to reduce the spread of the virus.

We also need to work harder to combat the stigma associated with HIV, so that people can come out as being positive without fear of shame or harassment.  Openness around HIV status allows people to stay on the medicine that keeps them safe and encourages positive mental health in all people.

HIV is no longer the ruthless killer that it once was.  These days, a person is more likely to die from tuberculosis than they are of HIV.  Though there is a higher level of knowledge about what HIV is in the community, there remains a dangerous number of incorrect perceptions about it.  For example, there is still a common mistaken belief that HIV is a death sentence.  A lot of money has been spent on educating and managing the populace on HIV/AIDS, which is reflected in our ever-reducing prevalence levels, but there is still a lot more that needs to be done. The appropriate bodies and authorities should not relent in disseminating relevant education, information, and communication materials in a continuous manner to the populace.  This is the most steadfast method of ensuring a permanent behavioral change is made to unsafe practices, and will contribute to a more accurate overall perception of the disease.

We all must ensure that we know our own HIV status, as these tests are offered for free all around us.  As we aim to practice good health and wellbeing in so many ways, we must consider regular testing an extension of this.  Across Africa, we should all get tested at least once every 6 months. Studies have shown that those who start treatment early do better than those who don’t.  To those who are living with the disease: understand that there is help out there and that HIV isn’t a death sentence.  With the right medication and a healthy lifestyle – not to mention safe sexual practices to prevent the spread of the disease – a long and happy life is possible for all of us.

We can stop HIV/AIDS.  And we will.

 

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