Is the HIV stigma finallyin retreat?

2011-12-01 00:00

TWO decades after the HI virus was first identified it seems like the stigma of carrying it might finally be losing its power. Sindi Gumede* (36) of Edendale, who has been living with the disease for 15 years, says that she kept her status a secret for many years because she knew very few people who were positive, but now she is open about her status as there are many more people who are also positive.

However, one place where her status is still a secret is at the church she attends. “The pastor preaches about how we should be kind to HIV-positive people and care for them, but no one discloses their status. I am not sure how people would behave towards me if they knew, so I do not talk about it.”

Gumede was diagnosed in 1996 when she was a 21-year-old high-school pupil.

“I went to a clinic and had a blood test, and then had to wait three months for the results to come back. When the nurse told me I was positive I did not want to accept it. I told my mother, my sister and my best friend. My mother was very supportive and comforted me. I told my boyfriend, who was the one who infected me, I think, but he did not believe me. Four of his other girlfriends have died since then. He died in 2005.

“I failed two subjects in matric and thought it was the end of the road for me. I thought I was going to die, but I went for training as an HIV/Aids counsellor. I am still trying to pass the supplementary exams for those two matric subjects. I have also worked as a domestic worker.”

When she was first diagnosed, Gumede’s CD4 count was very high, but has slowly declined over the years. She was sick with shingles in 2006, but has otherwise enjoyed reasonable health. At the most recent test, her count was 254, and she was struggling with thrush in her throat, bouts of diarrhoea and vomiting, but she did not qualify to go onto ARV medication. How- ever, with the new regulations allowing access to medication for anyone with a CD4 count lower than 350, she has just started on ARVs. She finds the clinic sisters very kind and helpful — they do not judge her for being HIV-positive.

“I went for training at the clinic and my brother is my buddy. The training was very good as it explained everything very well. I am already feeling better and my glands are not so swollen. I have had some side- effects like bad dreams and feeling dizzy, but the training prepared me for this so I know it is just the medicine.”

Gumede has one sister who is also on ARV medication. They live in the family home with her brother and her sister’s two children. None of the adults at home is employed full time. They survive on a social grant for one of the children and food parcels that a foreign church organisation gives them every second month.

Gumede seems hopeful about the future, saying that ARVS “saved my life”. She hopes to complete her matric and find work.

* Not her real name

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