SHE learnt that she was HIV positive in 2000 when her husband was on national duty in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Then only 24-years old and married to a soldier, Miriam Chakaipa was pregnant and already a mother of two.
Times were hard and she dreaded rejection by society if she disclosed her status. True to her fears, after informing her husband about her status, he refused to go for testing saying all was well with him: He subsequently left her for another woman.
Slowly but surely, she accepted her status; thanks to the support she received from her support group and counsellors.
Fortunately, her child, now 12 years old, was born negative — thanks to her decision to accept her status. This opened the way for her to participate in the Prevention of Mother to Child Transmission (PMTC) programme.
Being on PMTC meant that she could not breastfeed after giving birth, triggering ridicule from her husband’s relatives.
“They were saying if she does not breastfeed it means that either she was not faithful when the husband was in the DRC or was a witch,” said Chakaipa.
And as fate would have it, her husband returned home after the child he had with the woman was born HIV positive.
The child died after four months.
Nonetheless, the family reunited and now 13 years on after learning of her status, she is on antiretroviral (ARV) medication, while her husband is still on cotrimoxazole. All their three children, the oldest at 18 years, the youngest at 12 years, are negative.
Chakaipa’s story reveals how in the very end, a decision to accept one’s status and live by the rules leads one to conquer HIV.
But how has she made it for the past 13 years since she first knew of her status? How has her husband been able to live positively without taking ARVs?
“You have to conquer HIV, and you can. You must not let it conquer you,” she said.
Chakaipa gave four factors that she thinks have seen her not only boosting her CD4 count from 199 in 2003 to the current 1 013, while her husband has been as fit as a fiddle without resorting to ARVs.
In Molecular Biology, CD4 is a glycoprotein found on the surface of immune cells such as T helper cells and is used to analyse the prognosis of patients infected with HIV.
Accepting one’s status and disclosure are among some of the factors that have helped Chakaipa soldier on. She has disclosed her status to all and sundry, family, friends and even strangers.
“Even my children know my status. At 7am every day, whether I am home or not, they send me a message on the phone saying majuicer here? (Have you taken your medication),” said Chakaipa.
“In 2007, my father just stood up at a funeral in the rural areas and announced without warning that I was HIV positive. It came as a surprise. There were many people including strangers. If I had not accepted my status by then, that could have destroyed me.”
She said praying also helps strengthen the spirit.
Sticking to the right diet, intake of medication and protecting oneself from re-infection by not having unprotected sex even if one is married are also important.
“A condom is not only for those who are not married. It’s also for those who are married. We use condoms with my husband. We are both positive but I am on ARVs and he is yet to take those as he is on cotrimoxazole,” said Chakaipa.
“If we have unprotected sex, he will develop resistance strains and when he then wants to start to use ARVs they may not work.”
She said when she was diagonised with HIV, she survived due to the help she got from counsellors and she decided to become one, leading to a two-year course in systematic counselling.
While still at college, a United States nonprofit-making organisation, the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric Aids Foundation, advertised for the counseling job locally. She applied and was accepted.
Since then, she has been working as a counsellor mostly in Chitungwiza and elsewhere including at schools where they teach students through drama.
During her work, she has come to realise that poverty and some religious and cultural practices, contribute to the spread of the epidemic.
For example, in 2007 they did a research at St Mary’s Clinic and Seke North Clinic which revealed that a frightening number of married women behaved in the same way as prostitutes due to high levels of poverty in Chitungwiza as they confessed that they had lost count of the number of men they had sex with during their married life.
Some Apostolic sects where self-styled prophets claim to help women conceive through spiritual means were also said to be contributing to spreading HIV.
Instead of just offering prayers to make women conceive, the alleged prophets were said to be sleeping with the desperate women.
“In the survey, some of the married women confessed that each time they wanted to fall pregnant they would go back to madzibaba (self-styled prophet). Now you can imagine how many women who wanted to conceive that person would be sleeping with,” said Chakaipa.
There is also an unhelpful cultural belief that those who are HIV positive can be negative if they have sex with virgins.
This has also resulted in the increase in the rape of minors, while heartrending stories of women and children thrown out of family homes after testing positive are rife.
Chakaipa urged the government to come up with a number of interventions such as ensuring that all pregnant mothers who are HIV positive are put on ARV treatment immediately as happens in Malawi, for example.
The shortage of health workers was seen as another problem, in addition to the shortage of second line drugs.
But as she looks into the future what are her wishes?
“By 2015, no child should be born with HIV. No child should die from HIV,” she declared
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