Let’s talk…

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“Today we are going to learn about HIV testing.” *class acts exited. “Everyone will get a chance to know exactly how HIV testing is done. In fact we will aaaall get tested ” *random voices in the class, “yes!” “Let’s!” Instructor continues, “and we will aaaallll share our results with the class.” Pin drop silence. Ha! The entire class literally died in that moment. Not a single word was uttered. Not a single sound was heard. The silence akin to a graveyard at midnight manifested. Why do we get like this when asked to be open about our HIV statuses? If made to face the same predicament, would you willingly share your HIV status publicly? If not, why? What if it was something else? Don’t get me wrong, testing is voluntary and you are entitled to confidentiality upon the release of your results, but why do we get like this when it comes to HIV/AIDS?  I wonder if the reaction would have been the same for diabetes testing? Arthritis? Asthma? Aren’t they all chronic diseases? Don’t you live a normal lifespan with all if you manage them well and prevent complications?

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Thankfully, many cardiac arrests were prevented when the instructor said he was only joking and wouldn’t actually make us get tested or share our results..Have you been tested?

The very first time I ever heard of HIV/AIDS was when I was in class 5. I was around 11 years of age or so. The message back then was that HIV/AIDS kills! HIV/AIDS is a monster! In fact, posters actually drew a monster and labeled it AIDS. There were slogans and posters and television ads all talking about “crush HIV/AIDS.” Does any of you remember? I recall watching one of these ads in the living room with my mother and remember the depiction of a rawboned, utterly wasted individual who eventually died and left behind a helpless family. Terrified and severely confused by the images I had just seen, I asked my mother whether “we” had HIV, in an attempt to find some consolation,” Her response, “if you are not infected, you are affected.” If you not infected you are affected. Get tested.

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Basic facts about HIV

  • HIV stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus. It is a virus that attacks your immune system and hinders your body’s ability to fight off infections, making you susceptible to an array of infections.
  • If left untreated, it can take around 10 to 15 years for AIDS to develop, which is when HIV has severely damaged the immune system.
  • With early diagnosis and effective antiretroviral treatment, people with HIV can live a normal, healthy life.

Basic facts about AIDS

  • AIDS stands for Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. A syndrome is a group of symptoms that consistently occur together or a condition characterized by a set of associated symptoms.AIDS is therefore the syndrome that results from late stage HIV.
  • AIDS is also referred to as advanced HIV infection or late-stage HIV.
  • Someone with AIDS may develop a wide range of health conditions including: pneumonia, thrush, fungal infections, TB, toxoplasmosis and cytomegalovirus.
  • There is also an increased risk of developing other life-limiting conditions, including cancer and brain illnesses.

HIV is not AIDS. HIV causes AIDS. HIV does not kill. AIDS kills. Not everyone who has HIV has AIDS. Not everyone who has HIV will get AIDS. Visit your local VCT. Get tested.

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A common joke made is that if a man tells you the number of sexual partners he has had divide that by three. If a woman tell you the number of sexual partners they have had, multiply that by three. Why? Because when it comes to all things sex, men tend to over exaggerate while women tend to under exaggerate. (Don’t crucify me for sharing a joke..lol?) Of course, this is not a hard and fast rule and doesn’t hold true for everyone. The main mode of transmission of HIV is however, through sexual intercourse. Therefore I hope this joke scares you to the VCT. You might be thinking  “oh I’m married.” Or “oh I’m single” or “or I only have one faithful partner,” my sister my brother oh, get off your ivory tower and run to the VCT!

Did you know that with today’s anti retro viral medications (ARVs), people with HIV who faithfully take their medication and live a healthy lifestyle actually have normal lifespans?
Second most common mode of transmission is from an infected mother to her child, either during or after delivery. BUT….Did you know that a HIV positive mother on ARVs, counseled correctly can give birth to a HIV negative baby and even breastfeed him/her without infecting her?(In Kenyatta National Hospital, this percentage is close to zero.) This is called prevention of mother to child transmission (PMTCT). Are you aware that in a couple where one is positive and the other negative, a HIV negative baby can be born without the negative partner becoming positive? Learn more from your local clinic, after you get tested.
There are other modes of transmission like needle stick injuries and blood transfusion with infected blood(this is however unlikely due to screening).Those you will learn from your local VCT when you get tested.

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Back to the initial scenario, here we are sitting in a class fill of future doctors. Young professionals who know most of what there is to know about HIV/AIDS and still very much terrified by it. Don’t tell me it’s because they don’t understand because we both know they do. So what is it? It’s a little thing called STIGMA. It is the fear of people possibly treating you differently should your results turn out to be positive. It’s the fear of judgement.Stigma, is what makes a HIV positive individual fail to disclose the results with their friends, their family,  their partner. Stigma is what makes a HIV positive individual take their ARVs from a multivitamin  bottle. It is what makes an individual opt to buy free ARVs from the “black market” because they don’t want to be seen going to the clinics to collect their FREE medicine. Stigma is what makes me and you not get tested because we are scared of what could be.Stigma comes from lack of knowledge. From ignorance backed with the fear from misunderstanding. Go get counseled and tested.

Years ago, doctors didn’t know how to handle HIV and it would ultimately result in AIDS and you would die. Years ago. When ARVs initially hit the market, they were too expensive for the common man to afford. Now, they are free (ARVs are free in all public hospitals). Once upon a time, it was not recommended for HIV positive women to get pregnant, in fact they would be sterilized because of the expected complications to both the mother and baby that would eventually lead to their demise. That was then. Now, there is PMTCT, worry not. HIV IS NOT A DEATH SENTENCE. Repeat that till it sticks. So, got get tested.

World AIDS day is on 1st December. I encourage you to be proactive about your health. Go out there and get counseled and tested. Drag your friends along. Drag your family. Take her on a date to the VCT. Make it your thing.Positive or negative, it is not a death sentence, it is a chronic disease. With the right attitude, your medication and a healthy lifestyle, you will live a normal lifespan just like anyone else. Have we not said this?

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Remember, if you’re not infected, you are affected.Happy testing!

Yours, Maggie.

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