Mpumalanga woman regrets stopping her ARVs

It's never a good idea to stop taking your ARVs.
It's never a good idea to stop taking your ARVs.

Tired of swallowing medicine every single day for close on 10 years, Ntombifuthi Radebe (32) was misled by her treatment buddy who encouraged her to to ditch the pills and forget about the arduous habit.

But now, after four months of failing to take her antiretroviral medication as prescribed, Radebe has made herself resistant to the treatment that once worked for her – and is once again having to take pills every day for the rest of her life. And because she is now resistant to the first-line antiretroviral therapy, she has been placed on second-line antiretroviral therapy.

Traditional muti

Radebe says she understood fully how the ARV treatment worked to keep her HIV infection under control by stopping the HIV virus from multiplying and growing in her body. The therapy also helped the immune system to recover, making it able to fight infections that may occur, as well as allowing the body to recover from any damage the virus may have caused. However, this knowledge did not stop Radebe from taking a break from her pills to instead experiment with traditional muti.

The mother of three has been taking ARVs for nine years and was also on bipolar treatment for 14 years without the knowledge of her family.  Because of her fear of being discriminated against and stigmatized, she never disclosed her HIV status to her family. And so after almost a decade she was tired and desperately wanted a new beginning. With her treatment buddy on her side, this appeared possible.

In June last year Radebe was introduced to a local sangoma who claimed to treat  HIV. A desperate Radebe saw this as an opportunity too good to pass up as her treatment buddy assured her that the medicine worked.

“I remember thinking ‘What have you got to lose, because you are already HIV positive. If it doesn’t work you can still go back to ARVs.’” Radebe explained.

'Pill fatigue'

In  August  Radebe says she made the ‘stupid choice’ to stop taking ARVs, and took traditional muti for almost five months.

According to Professor Francois Venter from the University of Witwatersrand’s Reproductive Health and HIV Institute, pill fatigue is a problem issue as any break in taking treatment is extremely dangerous for the patient.

“If you interrupt ARVs, you get a sudden surge of virus, which wipes out much of the immune system that maybe have taken years to rebuild. It’s a terrible decision,” Prof Venter explained.

He added that the challenges of mixing ARVs with traditional muti were not known, nor the dangers posed.

“We know that components of ARVs but we don’t know what is in the muti, so it may have overlapping toxicity. We just don’t know,” he added.

Adherence very important

Radebe said this was not the first time she had used traditional medicines.

“After almost 10 years of pills I was tired of taking both ARVs and bipolar treatment. But I went too far because I stop taking my ARVs for almost four months and ended up causing more harm than good,” she said.  

Professional nurse Maria Khoza said “Adherence is very important for clients on ARVs because in order for them to work properly clients must know it is a lifetime commitment. It is their responsibility ask the right questions of their healthcare workers and to take all the medicines exactly as prescribed at the same time, every day, for the rest of their lives.”

Khoza warned against mixing of ARVs with traditional medicines, saying it could lead to the development of resistance to the medicines.

Radebe, who is currently back on treatment, said late in October last year she took a CD4 count test which came because back very low. Her viral load was extremely high, but she still did not tell the healthcare worker that she had stopped taking her ARVs months ago.

Radebe is now on the second line treatment that is not only more expensive for government and comes with more side effects. Should she wish to remain healthy and keep the levels of HIV in her blood low, she has not option but to resume taking the treatment every day for the rest of her life. – Health-e News.

Image credit: iStock

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