Mr Rangarirai Chikowero had a dry, hacking cough which would not disappear despite taking all manner of over-the-counter cough medications.
He eventually decided to visit a clinic where he was diagnosed with tuberculosis (TB).
Mr Chikowero knew TB could be cured and did not worry further about his condition.
But he kept falling sick and that is when he realised there could be more to it.
Finally, he was tested for HIV and the results came back positive.
“I fell sick for a while and lost a lot of weight. I received my TB medication but I wasn’t getting any better so I got tested for HIV. I tested positive and soon started anti-retroviral treatment and began to recover steadily,” said Mr Chikowero.
Before long, he joined a support group and became actively involved with people living positively with HIV. While Mr Chikowero was busy with his HIV activism along came the love of his life, Melissa.
She was however HIV negative.
“We started dating and eventually got married. She was a single parent and I didn’t hide my HIV status from her. I was just 30 then, so I proposed marriage and she agreed. She accepted me for who I was,” said Mr Chikowero.
For years now, Mr Chikowero and his wife have been in what is called a sero-discordant relationship.
This is also known as a “magnetic” or “mixed-status” relationship in which one partner is infected by HIV while the other is not.
“We’ve no children together as yet, but with time we’ll plan on how we can have them without my wife being infected with HIV,” said Mr Chikowero.
In 2011, it was said that at least 12 percent of couples in Zimbabwe are HIV sero-discordant, a situation believed to be an epicentre of HIV transmission.
Now, Bulawayo province has the highest number of HIV discordant couples in the country with 12 percent of the city’s HIV negative people having positive spouses, the Zimbabwe Demographic and Health Survey revealed.
The survey said the provincial figure surpasses the national average of five percent.
Although the statistics don’t tell a pretty story, Mr Chikowero said he always engages in safe sex with his wife and she goes for HIV testing every three months.
“My wife is still HIV negative, we always use condoms,” he said.
Some say taking care of a terminally ill partner has a deep psychological impact.
Mrs Chikowero, however, dismissed these claims saying stigma thrives where there is no love.
“I’ve never had any trouble taking care of my husband. My daughter and I are always supportive of him. My parents passed on without knowing that we’re a discordant couple. It’s my siblings and daughter who know and they’re very supportive,” said Mrs Chikowero.
She said stigma and discrimination from neighbours is close to non-existent as some people visit their home for HIV counselling.
“Gone are the days when the community regarded HIV positive people as a burden to the society. Gone are the days when they were seen as immoral people not fit to interact with others. HIV positive people were regarded as outcasts in society, they were isolated and called all sorts of names but that’s a thing of the past,” said Mrs Chikowero.
Experts say if discordant couples do not get help, the HIV negative partner may go around disclosing their partner’s status to the whole community, causing insurmountable problems.
After 30 years of marriage, Mrs Patricia Nkomo says it is possible for couples to live normal and happy lives despite being HIV sero-discordant.
“It was in 2006 when I started developing pimples. I first ignored them but they got worse and my husband encouraged me to seek medical attention. I visited the clinic but the pimples seemed to pop back on after treatment.
“That’s when I visited my gynaecologist as I was also experiencing pain in my lower abdomen. After examining me, my gynaecologist recommended that I get tested for HIV and that’s when I discovered I was HIV positive,” said Mrs Nkomo.
As soon as she got home, Mrs Nkomo told her husband about her HIV status who went to get tested and discovered he was HIV negative.
“My husband didn’t panic; maybe it was because we always communicated about such things. He was actually my pillar when my condition ate me up. He took me for counselling, took care of me together with my three children, especially in 2008 when my CD4 count dropped to 24,” said Mrs Nkomo.
At the time, her sister-in-law was an HIV peer counsellor who spoke to the family extensively about the virus.
“My children are a pillar of strength. When I get too busy and forget to take my pills, they always say mama sekuyisikhathi sepharmacy (Mom, it’s time for your medication).
“I still participate in family events although at some point I quit my job because I couldn’t handle the stigma,” said Mrs Nkomo.
While some HIV sero-discordant couples live happily in the institution of marriage, people assume that most do not because sex will no longer be as desirable.
Mrs Nkomo said being HIV sero-discordant does not necessarily mean couples start denying each other conjugal rights.
“My husband goes for HIV testing every six months and he still is HIV negative. We do indulge in sex but we use condoms correctly and always. Even when my husband brings home bonus money or a birthday present; no matter how happy he is or I am, we use condoms. We actually alternate on who wears it, in case he gets bored of wearing one, I do,” said Mrs Nkomo.
Although her viral load is now undetectable, Mrs Nkomo says she and her husband have not stopped using condoms.
“People say in discordant relationships, the HIV positive partner will try to infect their HIV negative partner so that they don’t leave them and that’s why most couples break up.
“They could be right, but all I know is I’ve lived with my husband for 11 years after I tested positive for HIV and he still loves me like he always did. It’s wise for people to disclose their HIV statuses to their partners so they don’t infect them,” said Mrs Nkomo.
She is now a volunteer community worker and peer counsellor, sharing knowledge on HIV and Aids.
Zimbabwe National Network for People Living with HIV/Aids chairman Mr Sebastian Chinhaire said HIV discordant couples should condomise to prevent infection.
He said strict adherence to anti-retroviral treatment reduces the viral load to an extent that it becomes undetectable hence reducing the chances of infecting a negative partner.
“We encourage discordant couples to use condoms every time they indulge in sexual intercourse,” said Mr Chinhaire.