Death by HIV/Aids? Not if I can help it

2010-02-04 00:00

THIS paragraph in a story in The Witness­ last year caught my eye (December­ 1).

The medical journal, Lancet, largely blames South African authorities­ for the phenomenon of Aids stigma and denialism here.

“Social stigma associated with HIV/Aids, tacitly perpetuated by the government’s reluctance to bring the crisis into the open and face it head- on, prevents many from speaking out about the causes of illness and deaths of loved ones ... the South African­ government needs to stop being defensive and show backbone and courage to acknowledge and seriously­ tackle the HIV/Aids crisis of its people ” (February 2005).

At the time it struck me as interesting in an abstract, theoretical kind of way, but it made me angry at the authorities all the same. Now it has become personal. Now, I am really angry.

We engage a part-time employee whom our children love dearly. There is only one person to whom both Jason and Anna run to greet and hug when she arrives and that’s Nonto Zulu*. They are also fond of her young son Sifiso*. We last saw Zulu just before Christmas and the children­ were looking forward to seeing her again. When I called to confirm when that would be, a breathless, weak voice answered her phone, gasping in pain. I barely recognised her. She had severe stomach­ pain, a raw throat and aching­ joints. She could not eat.

A scandalous story emerged. She had been to a state hospital and been told that she had an ulcer. She was sent home with medication, including cough mixture and Panado. Several­ days later, she was no better, still in severe pain and still unable to eat. She went to the local clinic where she was given an injection and told to continue with the medication as she would get better.

I arranged to fetch her and take her to our own GP. I left home that Saturday at 7.30 am to make the trip to her homestead near Bulwer. Many hours and R1 000 later, I returned, emotionally exhausted, angry and spoiling for a fight.

Fortunately for Thabo Mbeki I don’t have access to his phone number, and his co-accused in allegations of crimes against humanity through Aids denialism, Manto Tshabala-Msimang, is no more.

I was horrified by Zulu’s condition, which, she said, had deteriorated dramatically in a week. She was weak, wasted and shaking. She could hardly walk and had to sign her name with a cross. She did indeed have an ulcer and thrush in her throat too.

I am no medic, but even I could deduce that she was probably HIV-positive­. Had it been suggested to her by the health services that she have a test? No. Had any of the medical people she had seen suggested to her that perhaps her symptoms indicated the need for a test? No. Too deeply entrenched in denial, it seems they had ignored the probable cause, given her medicine to treat the symptoms and sent her home. To what? To die?

Not if I can help it.

Being HIV-positive is no longer a death sentence. It is increasingly being seen as a manageable condition chronic, yes, but manageable, for a time at least. With medication and decent nutrition, Zulu can live to see her son grow up.

She is the only breadwinner in a home of several adults and even more children, many of whom are orphaned by Aids. There was no money or food in the house and no hope of it until the next social grant came in, hence my depleted wallet. I drove Zulu home with a load of medication, groceries, cash and cellphone airtime.

Fortunately, she had realised for herself what her symptoms suggested and gone for a test. She knows all about antiretrovirals and she has the will and the initiative to tap into the health system to get them.

Her partner is another story. Although she had tested negative before the birth of Sifiso, his father claimed to have tested negative. Who can blame him when the president thinks it’s safe to have sex with an HIV-positive woman and then take a shower?

Aids denial seems to be a deeply entrenched national tradition like patriarchy and eating beef. I don’t hold with either of those so I refuse to subscribe to denialism too.

Zulu attended a course at her local clinic on how to take ARVs and the role of her buddy so that she will be prepared if her CD4 count falls to the required minimum level.

Again, not if I can help it.

HIV/Aids is still one of the elephants­ in the room on the national agenda. That elephant has stomped into my back yard. Even if the state health-care system doesn’t seem to care, I do. * Not their real names.

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