By Sibongile Maruta
Stigma towards people living with HIV has been blamed for many negative consequences including poor adherence to therapy and psychological stress.
The stigma is influenced by socio-demographic factors such as age, gender, marital status, educational attainment, socioeconomic status, and area of residence.
Young people living with HIV are hard hit by the stigma as they sometimes lack the support systems needed to manage the condition.
Sharleen Mheziya (20) who grew up in Banket town in Mashonaland West, has struggled to fight the HIV stigma since the age of 12.
“My parents died when l was young and l was the only child in our family. I was raised up by my grandmother who was afraid to tell me my status since l was young,” she said.
Her understanding of antiretroviral treatment was limited at the time and her guardian maintained her silence.
“Growing up, I was always taking medication and my grandmother used to tell me that they were pain killers since I was always in and out of hospital. Sometimes I would have rashes all over my body,” Mheziya recalled.
Her medication triggered curiosity in her as she wanted to know the reasons for her continued ill health.
“When I was 17 in 2015, I decided to get tested and the results revealed I was HIV positive. I was hurt, I felt like committing suicide. From then on I lost confidence because I suffered a lot of stigma from school,” she said.
“It was not easy, I needed support and continuous counselling to understand my status. I had none of that at first. I had so many unanswered questions and l would say why me, and I defaulted for nearly a year. I got angry and didn’t want to talk to my granny. We would quarrel most of the time over this issue,” she said.
It took the intervention of Zvandiri, a non-governmental organisation supporting the Ministry of Health and Child Care in disseminating critical HIV and ART related information to clarify issues for her.
Zvandiri also encourages strict adherence to medication and other facets of positive living. Mheziya said the support she got through the organisation was overwhelming and it was at that stage that she got to meet her peers who were also living with HIV.
“I was introduced to the community adolescent treatment supporters (CATS). After I joined CATS, I got to relate with others who shared the same circumstances with me. It gave me a sense of belonging. I was taught to fight self-stigma first before I could deal with other forms of discrimination. Through the support that we get from CATS I can now live with my status,” Mheziya said.
The biggest challenge for Mheziya and others who share her condition has been finding love.
Alick Jewe (22) from Banket also confirmed that the moment one discloses their status to a HIV negative partner the relationship ends.
“Growing up I thought when one is HIV positive they have AIDS and that they are going to die. When I found out that l was HIV positive after being tested at Banket hospital I thought l was going to die,” he said.
“I defaulted on my medication for six months because I was hurt, it was difficult to accept that I was HIV positive. I asked my mother why I was HIV positive and she just said such things happen,” said Jewe.
The negative attitude towards medication had consequences for him.
He said; “When I defaulted my viral load was high and as a result I was diagnosed with TB and I went on treatment.”
He also faced prejudice from previous lovers after trusting them with information on his condition.
“I had a girlfriend and she was HIV negative. We dated for a while and I did not disclose my status to her in the early stages of the relationship. When I decided to disclose my status to my girlfriend, her response was ‘it’s OK’. I never heard anything from her again,” he said.
The adolescents spoke to The Herald during a recent National Aids Council (NAC) tour of Mashonaland West.
National Aids Council communications officer Mrs Tadiwa Nyatanga-Pfupa said there is still a lot of stigma amongst young girls who are living with HIV.
“We realized that there is still a lot of stigma from family members and society. If they happen to fall in love and they disclose their HIV status the relationship ended at the point of disclosure.
“We urge that people who are HIV positive be taken like everyone else. There are lot of us out there who do not know their HIV status. We discourage stigma at all levels even from family level,” she said.
According to the Ministry of Health and Child Care estimates, by the end of 2015, 61 percent of adults (above 15 years) living with HIV were on treatment and 80 percent of all children living with HIV were on ART.
Zvandiri focal person in Zvimba District Tracy Dumba said the CATS programme has reached out to over 2400 youngsters aged 10 and upwards in the district.
She also said adolescents living with HIV and Aids were defaulting on their medication due to discrimination and fear of losing their partners, thus exposing themselves to opportunistic infections.