Friday, March 20, 2009

Denial + secrecy = lives at risk

As we work more in the community through home visits and AIDS awareness, we see how much stigma is still attached to HIV and AIDS. Even though there is an openness in sharing information about HIV-AIDS, when it comes to admitting that HIV-AIDS is actually present in my family or my community there is still so much denial and secrecy. And this is putting lives at risk.

Consider the story of Martha*. When her aunt, who she was very close to, fell ill she willingly volunteered to help her cousin nurse her at home. She gave more and more of her time to her aunt, but eventually her aunt passed away. After a couple of years, Martha noticed that she was losing weight and was often sick. She decided, after a few trips to the clinic, to ask for blood tests. One of these was for HIV and came back positive. Martha immediately thought of her boyfriend and he was also tested, but was HIV-negative. Because of counselling she received, Martha was able to accept her HIV status although it was a great shock, and was open in talking about it with her family. When her cousin heard that she was HIV-positive, she came to Martha and, haltingly, confessed that her mother, Martha’s aunt, had died of an AIDS-related illness. Despite the risk to Martha and others who helped look after her aunt, her cousin and aunt had decided to keep her aunt’s HIV-status a secret because of the shame they thought it would bring to the family.

Rejoice* was also often sick. She was diagnosed HIV-positive and when her brothers and sisters found out, they decided not to tell their extended family. Soon their uncles and aunts came to them and suggested taking Rejoice to a traditional healer to find out why she was sick, since she kept visiting the hospital and was not getting better. Rejoice’s siblings kept making excuses for not taking her to the traditional healer, as they knew she had started on treatment for the HIV and her health would soon improve, but the pressure from the family intensified. Eventually they took her away and pretended to the family that they had seen the traditional healer. The family was satisfied as, soon after, Rejoice’s health improved.

If her siblings had not been in control, it is very possible that Rejoice would have been taken to the traditional healer, who could have tried remedies that would have interfered with the HIV treatment. In addition to this, the extended family is more likely to take relatives with symptoms like Rejoice’s to traditional healers in the future because of the ‘success’ of Rejoice’s visit.

One of the important parts of the work of EBCAIDS is, through education and counselling, enabling people to be open about their HIV-status, decreasing stigma and avoiding putting more lives at risk.

*Not their real names

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