After HIV was first discovered in the 1980s, there followed a lot of stigma and discrimination towards people living with HIV and AIDS. But after four decades of campaigns to educate people about the virus and treatment, HIV is now largely viewed as being similar to any other chronic illness or condition.
Over time, the stigma of this sexually-transmitted virus is wearing away, and instead of feeling fearful to disclose that you have HIV, it has now become imperative that you know your status so that you can receive effective treatment. Nowadays, modern medical treatment means that people living with HIV can live long, healthy lives without infecting their partners if they regularly take their medication.
Human Immunodeficiency virus (HIV) slowly attacks the immune system which is the body’s natural defence against illness. The virus destroys a type of white blood cell called a T-helper cell (CD4 cell) and makes copies of itself inside them. If left untreated, HIV can cause Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS). When HIV progresses to AIDS, it means that a person’s immune system is too weak to fight off infection, which can lead to death.
According to statistics from UNAIDS, incidences of HIV in Zimbabwe reduced by 50% from 2010 to 2015. Incidences of HIV also reduced among children from 30% in 2010 to less than 5% in 2015 and HIV/AIDS-related mortality reduced by 38%. However, there are certain areas where HIV rates are still high: border towns, mining areas, growth points and resettled farms. HIV prevalence is also slightly higher in high density urban areas than in rural areas.
HIV affects many people from all walks of life. 40 year old Shadreck Shanga of Mt. Hampden was recently diagnosed with the virus. “I lost my wife to AIDS last year in June, but every time I went to be tested, I was found to be HIV negative. When I fell seriously ill in April and went to the clinic, I was found to be negative once again. It was only when I changed hospitals and was tested yet again that I was told I had the virus.”
Dr Cleophas Chimbetete, who treats many HIV positive patients, says HIV is transmitted either through unprotected sex, sharing sharp objects such as razor blades and needles, and through parent-to-child transmission (PMTCT).
“In the past if someone was HIV positive, doctors would look at their immune system to see how far the virus had affected it and continue to check their immune system regularly before eventually deciding whether the patient now qualifies for Anti Retroviral Therapy (ART) or not. But over time and with more research, it was found out that once you have the virus in your body it is already doing damage, so the earlier you begin treatment, the better for the individual. Early treatment means that the amount of virus in the body (viral load) comes down. Ultimately this means that you become healthier and at the same time you are less likely to transmit it to others when you have a low viral load,” he explained.
Pregnant women can transmit HIV to their children either while in the uterus, during delivery or while breastfeeding. This is why it is a requirement for all pregnant women to know their status. If you are pregnant and discover that you are HIV positive, you can immediately be put on ART to reduce the risk of transmitting the virus to your unborn child.
“What determines whether you transmit HIV to the baby is the amount of virus you have in your body. If we are able to lower the viral load in a pregnant mother’s body, then the risk of her unborn child getting the virus is lowered. This also means she can have a normal pregnancy and does not need to have a c-section when she delivers and can also breastfeed for as long as she wants as her chances of transmitting the virus are less than two percent,” said Dr Chimbetete.
ART helps reduce the amount of virus in your body therefore reducing the chances of transmission. Shanga was put on ART soon after he found out he was HIV positive and is taking his medication regularly as prescribed by the doctor. Together with a healthy diet consisting of a lot of traditional foods, he is now able to live a normal, healthy life. Like high blood pressure, diabetes and asthma, HIV can be treated only if you know your status.
Everyone should know their HIV status. This is important to reduce the risk of you spreading the virus if you are HIV positive. In the event that you discover that you are HIV positive, consistent treatment with ART as soon as possible can lower your viral load and allow you to live a long, healthy normal life. If you are HIV negative, practice the ABCs: abstinence, being faithful to one partner, and constant condom use whenever you have sexual intercourse. You can get tested for HIV at any council clinic, hospital and all New Start centres.
Know your HIV status. To get tested, visit the New Start Centre at: 2nd floor New Africa House, 40 Kwame Nkrumah Avenue.