“HIV doesn’t kill people, it’s the stigma that kills them.”
These are the words of a Durban mother of three, Niqita Pieterse (28) , who is vocal about being HIV-positive, and encourages others to embrace their status. She also shares advice and words of encouragement on social networks about how people can live full lives while HIV-positive.
As the world gears up to celebrate World Aids Day on December 1, Pieterse said more needs to be done in South Africa to educate and sensitise people about the virus.
Pieterse, from Redhill, told Weekend Witness that she was diagnosed with HIV in 2010 after she was raped in 2008 when she was 16 years old.
“After the rape ordeal I was scared to get tested but always hoped I would be negative. Unfortunately, when I did the test, it came out positive.”
Before getting tested, Pieterse said she started getting ill. “I had a rash, my hair was falling out and I also had weight loss.
“I went to the doctor for a full body check-up. The doctor checked everything except my status and came back saying I was clear.” He asked when last she’d been tested for HIV. She told him she’d never been tested. “That’s when I found out I was positive,” she said.
A teenager at the time, Pieterse was devastated and had no one to talk to because her mother had just died due to an Aids-related illness.
Pieterse, who was at school in Pretoria at the time, said: “Her death made things worse for me. I was scared, alone and had no one to talk to.”
“My mother was in denial about her status. I knew she wasn’t well, but she never told me anything.”
After her mother’s death, Pieterse started researching the virus to learn how her mother’s death could have been prevented and how she herself could live a healthy life despite being positive. Her outreach on social media started on Facebook where she came across a woman who wanted to have an abortion because she was HIV-positive.
“I decided to inbox her privately and told her about my lifestyle and also that I had a beautiful HIV-negative baby despite me being positive. She listened and decided to keep the baby. She gave birth and the baby was negative. I was like, if I can help this one person imagine how many other people I could reach out to. That’s how it all started,” she said.
Pieterse now has a huge following on social networks. But this has incurred a backlash from family members who don’t approve.
“When I was pregnant with my last born, a relative called me and told me that I was embarrassing the family and asked why I was telling the whole world about my status. Some family members have even blocked me on social networks because they don’t want to see what I am posting,” she said.
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“I feel I have helped people, especially pregnant women with HIV,” she said.
Pieterse said that by taking ARV medication the virus is suppressed, although not gone.
She carried her children to full term and breastfed all of them. They and her husband Ismail, who is very supportive of her, are negative.
Pieterse said more needs to be done in the public health system to encourage people to get tested and not default on their medication.
“HIV is not a death sentence like before. The ARVs now are more advanced and people are living full lives. There is nothing that an HIV-negative person can do that a person with HIV cannot.”
Pieterse said stigmatising people with HIV is the only thing killing them, and urged people who are struggling, to reach out to her on social networks.