HIV in Zimbabwe is still stigmatized, 32 years later since the identification of the first cases in the country, with most people choosing to fight this battle in the secret confines of their medicine cabinets. Lucky for us this HIV/AIDS epidemic is being fought by a group of people we like to call HIV Warriors – not ashamed to publicize their status and use their personal experiences to inform and educate. Perhaps our community needs to pay more attention to these warriors and learn a thing or two for better chances of winning the war against the AIDS epidemic. ZimShoppingMalls communicated with one such warrior to try and understand the basics with the hope of following up further so that we can understand how these HIV warriors are currently fighting for the rest of us and more importantly learn how more Zimbabweans can join in the fight and ensure that the Zimbabwean community not only wins short term battles but wins the war against HIV/AIDS.
The first cases of AIDS in Zimbabwe were apparently identified in the mid-1980s; approximately 32 years ago. Over one million children in Zimbabwe have lost one or both parents to the AIDS epidemic. Based of published stats Zimbabwean women are disproportionately affected by HIV/AIDS, constituting a higher percentage of the population and a higher percentage of people living with HIV/AIDS. The estimated number of women living with HIV/AIDS has been higher than that for men since 1989, and the number of new infections among women has exceeded that among men since 1989 based on published results. It’s important to note that some of these stats are based on data from pregnant women at antenatal clinics, that can be unreliable in estimating national HIV prevalence rates, because the subset of the population used (pregnant women) are not statistically representative of the general population. Having said this, infection rates in Zimbabwe continue to be among the highest in the world – SOMETHING NEEDS TO BE DONE, not just talked about some more, JUST DONE!!!
HIV Warriors are getting a lot done in their communities. Read below to learn the MAJOR KEY, according to Bianca (HIV Warrior), to winning the war against HIV/AIDS.
Q For our audience that has not heard about you please introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about you.
Born Bianca Jade Boer 14th July 1975, I am the only girl among 7 boys, I have a son who is turning 23. I have been working for a Production House for the past 13 years. I am a very loving person that cares a lot about others, and for me life isn’t life if you do not live it like it’s your last day on earth. I am a very homely person, but I can also be outgoing, a typical weekend for me would be with friends and family.
Q Please explain the difference between being diagnosed with HIV and being diagnosed with AIDS.
People get it mixed up and it annoys me to the maximum when they say “she has AIDS” but in fact I don’t have AIDS, I was diagnosed with HIV. AIDS is a condition that develops after someone gets HIV but having said that, a person can live with HIV and never be diagnosed with AIDS. HIV is a virus that attacks the body’s white blood cells called CD4 cells. So having HIV you are a normal person you just have the virus living in your body, you can go on living for years and years as long as you look after yourself and take your medication religiously.
Q How long have you been HIV positive and what was your first reaction when you found out?
I tested positive in September 1999. My first reaction was how did this happen and why, the tears, the questions, the depression, I cried for days.
After months and months of holding on to that form I finally did it and back in the day I think we had to wait a damn long time for the results because they had to go to SA. The closer the time came for the results to come out I was a bunch of nerves, the call finally came Dr Mbengeranwa called me “Bianca please can you come to the surgery your results are back…” I tell you, I was sweating like it was 90 degrees outside, I was shaking, I couldn’t even fill out the claim form, the 15minute wait for my turn felt like 30 days…. then bammmmmm I was called and immediately I knew something was wrong because the look on his face and plus the wife (his then receptionist) was also in the room…. (damn it’s all coming back to me now sitting here like a baby with tears in my eyes) and then his explaining this and that which I don’t even think I heard, all I wanted to hear was these damn results… then the verdict came and he said “It’s not the end of the world”. I was like what the fuck does he know it’s not the end of the world, he said lets go for another test to make sure, I walked from his surgery then fife ave to medical chambers with snot tears, sobbing my heart out, when I got there the guy asked me if I want to talk to someone and I was like no just get this over and done with. The second test came back and I came to terms with it.
Q When did you start receiving care/treatment? Why did you decide to get treatment at that time?
I started taking vitamins 2006. Back then we were being counseled at the Centre; they had these vitamins that they used to make themselves that were meant to boost you and keep you from getting ill. I stopped taking them and started ARVs in 2007, at my doctor’s instruction because my CD was below 350 I had to start medication and the journey started.
Q Tell us a little about the treatment you are receiving and how it’s impacting your life?
I’m currently on the combination Efavirinz/Lamivudine/ Tenofovir Dispoproxil Fumarate. I have had no issues with the drugs, they are working very well for me, I have not been ill in years besides the seasonal flu and coughs. If anything I can say that this is the perfect combination for me.
Q Are you happy with the assessment of your treatment to ensure that you don’t develop a drug resistant strain as Zimbabwe is one of the 5 countries most impacted by a new drug resistant strain of HIV? How do you believe the process can be improved?
I am very happy with the way my health is managed to avoid drug resistance. Drug resistance is not based on how the doctors manage you it is based on how you manage taking your medication, if you religiously take your medication there is no need to worry about developing drug resistance. It’s all about you and taking your medication. To improve the process in Zimbabwe, we could introduce drug resistance tests for everyone on ARVs i.e. Regular Viral Load tests.
“In order for HIV drugs to work correctly, they must be taken exactly as prescribed. Skipping doses or not taking your medication correctly can cause the amount of an HIV drug to decrease in the bloodstream. If the drug level becomes too low, HIV can reproduce more freely and accumulate additional mutations. There are a number of reasons why someone might struggle with treatment adherence, including side effects, a hectic schedule or forgetfulness. If you’ve been having difficulty adhering to your drug regimen, it’s nothing to be embarrassed about—be sure to tell your doctor so that you can come up with solutions, which might including simplifying your treatment.” https://www.poz.com/basics/hiv-basics/hiv-drug-resistance
Q How has your status affected your romantic life?
My policy is that in the first conversation I disclose my status and that immediately gives him a choice to stay or leave. Some stay and some are skeptical about dating a positive person and they leave. I feel that I would rather a person tell me they cannot deal with this and leave than pretend that they are okay with it and in the end they are too scared to do anything with you. So in a nutshell yes it has affected my romantic life because not all people are open minded but I accept that but the ones that are open minded actually respect the fact that you have disclosed.
Q Do you ever get paranoid about infecting someone, in the way people who are not HIV positive sometimes are?
Paranoid is putting it lightly. It’s not a nice feeling at all knowing that you could infect someone. You have sleepless nights if the condom breaks and you are just waiting for the phone to ring to say I got tested and this is it, but on another level that is the reason I find that disclosing is the way to go because he knows the risks and that allows both of us to be extra careful. Now I think the stress is less due to the fact that if your viral load is undetected and your CD4 count is high the chances of infecting someone are low but besides that fact I still freak out.
Q What sort of discrimination have you faced since going public with your status and how have you dealt with it?
Funny I have never faced discrimination because of my HIV status, I guess because I speak it like it is and do not sugar coat my words people have accepted me the way I am and love me to bits because of being so open and honest about my status.
Q What do you think is the biggest misconception about living with HIV in Zimbabwe?
I think it’s people thinking if you have HIV you are definitely going to die… which is totally not true. If you manage your HIV and live healthy; take your meds; exercise and be stress free you can live a life better than HIV negative people.
Q How do you think we can reduce the stigma around HIV/AIDS in Zimbabwe?
Disclosure, disclosure, disclosure… and an I don’t care if people know attitude. We, people with HIV, should be more out there and show the world that look at me I am living positively and I don’t look like I’m suffering from the virus, we are healthy, we are living. We do everything that you can do and some things even better.
Q Studies by agencies such as ZIMPHIA show that women in Zimbabwe account for the highest ratio of adults living with HIV. Why do you think this is the case?
Women account for the highest ratio due to the fact that we have no rights as far as refusing unprotected sex in our homes; if you suggest a condom to your spouse he will think you are totally insane. Men are so promiscuous out there and come home and expect to not use condoms with their partners and the next thing he infects her. It’s really a shame that people don’t discuss these facts when they publish such stats that feed the stigma that women are the sources of infection rather than the men.
Q Many people are scared to get tested and feel that ignorance is better. What message would you like to give such people?
It’s better to know and do something about it than walk around fearing the worst while getting sicker and risking the chances of being diagnosed with AIDS.
Q What’s your advice to someone that has just been diagnosed with HIV?
Cry, scream, shout, do whatever makes you feel better but swiftly get to a point where you say enough is enough. Get to a point where you say ok this is it, I am HIV positive and nothing that anyone is going to say or do is going to take this HIV away, so I might as well accept it and get on with life. Acceptance is key in this fight with HIV, once you fully accept it, you immediately get help and the virus starts to behave and life goes on.
Q Do you think there is enough online material on living with HIV/AIDS as it relates specifically to Zimbabwe?
If you have access to the internet then yes there is loads, you just need to know what to look for. Google is your friend. Material is there it’s us that need to change our mind sets. Not only is the information available online but there is loads of print material that is available FREE for people that do not have access to online facilities.
Q The UNAids 90-90-90 target calls on countries to ensure that by 2020, 90% of all people living with HIV will know their status, 90% of all people with diagnosed HIV infection receive sustained antiretroviral therapy and 90% of all people receiving antiretroviral therapy’s viral load would be suppressed. What can Zimbabwe do to ensure we achieve this 2020 UNAids 90-90-90 target?
Honestly I think that in Zimbabwe we have so many measure put into place to allow that 90-90-90 target to be achieved. The material is out there, the testing centre’s are out there, clinics are well equipped to answer whatever questions you have, there are campaigns being held in the centre’s of towns.
What needs to change are the people’s attitudes to embracing this, people are still living in the dark ages not wanting to access help because of the fear of being shamed by neighbors and other. Once we embrace that HIV is an illness like any other illness and can be managed then we will achieve this with no strain at all.
Maybe to expedite our achieving the UNAids 90-90-90 target we could consider the following:-
– Avail more test sites throughout the country
– More teachings on behavioral change, correct & consistent use of condoms
– More funding needed in HIV programs so as to prevent ARV shortages & ensure that patients don’t run out of supplies
– Measures to be put in place for stronger penalties on people who knowingly infect others with the virus
– Gvt must continue to work together with community organizations, for example NGOs, to scale up HIV testing and
Q You have become an online advocate particularly on social media. Are you finding that more people want to openly talk about their status or the majority still want to discuss their status in secret?
Actually no people are not wanting to openly talk about their status because of fear of stigma, they rather not talk whilst looking after themselves and taking their meds.
Q Would you be interested to join our ZimShoppingMalls panel that engages questions from readers in relation to living with HIV/AIDS in Zimbabwe?
It would be an honour to join the ZimShoppinMalls panel and I promise to answer all the questions to the best of my ability, keeping in mind that I am not in any medical field so the answers will solely be based on my personal experience. I think it will be a good thing for others to hear from someone like me who doesn’t speak medical lingo but just experience and everyday language.
Q What parting words do you have for our readers?
You only have one life to live so live it to the best of your ability despite being HIV positive; HIV is no longer a killer. You have the key, to live a full life or death, in your hands – I would choose life! God has given us a second chance by giving us these ARVs so accept this opportunity and take your medication religiously; eat healthy and get on with it. Don’t feed social stigma and ignorance by not accepting your status – Acceptance is key to winning this war.
We hope this interview gets people to see that the fight is ours (all of us) and not theirs alone. Bianca says ACCEPTANCE is the key to end stigmatization and perhaps the beginning of true healing and winning for the Zimbabwean community. Feel free to engage Bianca in the comments below or just to share your thoughts.
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