HIV stigma continues to hamper treatment
Preventative measures are more accessible
THE availability of new prevention drugs, increasing accessibility of treatment and home testing kits for HIV have done little to curb the stigma attached to those living with virus as the world prepares to mark World Aids Day on Friday under the theme “The Right to Health”.
In South Africa the focus has shifted to getting those infected to get treatment as well getting those at risk to use preventative drugs.
Earlier this week the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAids) released a report in Khayelitsha that showed the number of infected people receiving antiretroviral drugs had increased significantly. To date, 20.9 million of the world’s 31 million people who are living with HIV have access to the lifesaving drugs.
“Many people do not remember that in 2000 there were only 90 people in South Africa on treatment,” said Michel Sidibé, executive director of UNAids.
“Today, South Africa has the biggest life-saving treatment programme in the world, with more than four million people on treatment. This is the kind of acceleration we need to encourage, sustain and replicate.”
According to the report, there have been an estimated 610 000 new infections recorded between March 2016 and March 2017 among people aged 15 to 24 in southern Africa, with women accounting for 59% of those new infections.
For a 40-year-old mother of three from Khayelitsha, the shame of living with her condition lead to her son becoming infected. “I found out I was positive through my boyfriend who had been living and working in Johannesburg. He came home and said he had HIV and probably gave it to me. I was so shocked and scared and immediately saw it as a death sentence that I did not even tell him I was pregnant,” she said.
“When I eventually went to the clinic, I did not tell the nurses that I was positive. When you go to the clinic to fetch your ARVs, that group is kept together and made to sit in one section so everyone there knows what you are there to do. I was ashamed and scared of being called names so I kept quiet.
“The minute you tell people your condition, they don’t want to touch something you have touched or eat your food. It’s sad but I have come to accept my condition and know that it does not mean I will die tomorrow. I am HIV positive but I am living positively too.”
Deputy director of the Desmond Tutu HIV Centre at UCT Professor Linda-Gail Bekker said living with HIV had become more manageable but the stigma was still a challenge.
“We are living in a new era. The HIV epidemic has come of age in that the availability of treatment, the treatment itself, the ability to get tested, the ability to prevent HIV has all come along incredibly.
“We know if you take your treatment every day, and now these new treatments have few side effects, you can become virally suppressed, which means viral undetectability and if your virus is undetectable the chances of you transmitting it is incredibly low, so you can take accountability for not only your own health but your intimate partner’s well-being.”
Bekker said aside from treatment, advancements in creating drugs that prevent contracting HIV, such as preexposure prophylaxis (PrEP), are also more accessible.
“It is hopeful that soon that we will be able to offer a young woman the option of going on an oral PrEP agent, a vaginal PrEP agent, as well as a long-acting agent, a bit like contraception.”
SA has more than four million people on treatment