Twenty years ago when someone acquired HIV, they would, on average, not live more than 12 years. Today, a young person who becomes infected in the developed world can expect to have a near-normal lifespan with access to lifelong, uninterrupted HIV treatment. These are the words of professor Glenda Gray president of the South African Medical Research Council. In 2018, in a population of 56 million people, 8 million people are HIV infected. Today is the 1st of December, a day that is internationally recognised as World AIDS Day. A day where those who are infected with the virus are celebrated for the bravery they possess as they fight this disease, and where those who have unfortunately perished at the hands of this disease are remembered. Prior to commencing work on a study in pediatric HIV surveillance at the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD), I will admit to having been very ignorant in regards to the plight of HIV that affects South Africa and its inhabitants. We’re all guilty of having seen ads on TV and thinking ‘HIV isn’t something that affects people like us (whatever that means.) We think ‘HIV isn’t something that affects me.
In the almost 10 months that I have been in this job position, I have seen the detrimental effects that it can have on a mother when it is revealed to her that her infant is infected with HIV. I have seen the detrimental effects that it has on a mother when she is told that she is infected with HIV. Over the past few months, I have also seen something else. I have seen doctors and research scientists do all they can to offer hope to these newly infected mothers & infants to ensure that both mother and baby can have as healthy and normal a life as any other mother and infant who aren’t infected. I have been able to interact with members of a team that were responsible for the first ground-breaking liver transplant from a mother who is HIV positive to her uninfected child. I have seen a resilience and dedication to research and undertaking of new methods to ensure that in 2018 and the future to come, no single person should have to die from HIV infection.
I have come to the realisation that the fight isn’t necessarily against HIV but against the stigma that is present in society when it comes to having conversation about HIV infection. Detrimental ideas such as the one expressed by ex-president Thabo Mbeki about HIV not being the causative agent of AIDS, putting into place policies that denied thousands of HIV-positive South Africans access to ARVs, caused deaths that could have been prevented. Alongside former health minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, who promoted the use of lemon, garlic and olive oil to treat AIDS, such ideas led thousands if not more, into falsely believing that HIV is a virus that they could live with sans treatment.
These are the dangerous ideas that we will continue to fight against. Ignorance of the mind and an unwillingness to research and educate yourself. On this World AIDS day, my message to you get tested and know your status and should you find yourself in that group of brave people infected by HIV, find someone, just one person that you can trust to support you as you show society and the world that this virus WILL NOT BEAT YOU.
This week, Lloyd Russell-Moyle, labour MP for Brighton revealed in the Chamber of Commons that he has been HIV positive for nearly 10 years. It’s an act that I hope will inspire others to reveal their diagnosis, get the help they need and bash the stigma that persists through silence and fear.