The recent announcement by American actor Charlie Sheen that he is HIV-positive has made waves in the media. A great part of the fascination seems to be that HIV is “back.” When you ponder the headlines, you wonder—why has this news garnered so much attention? Is it considered newsworthy because Sheen is a well-known celebrity or that HIV is still erroneously considered a queer illness to many?
Sheen’s public outbursts and public persona may inevitably feed into the portrayal of persons living with HIV (PLHIV) as promiscuous, immoral and badly behaved. Of course, this association would be ignorant, perpetuating gross stigma and discrimination.
In retrospect, there is a long history of ignorance about the disease abroad and on the continent. In some cases, HIV in Africa was thought to be a result of witch doctor’s activities, compelling people to burn alive those suspected of having HIV, or when some church leaders incorrectly claimed that HIV was God’s punishment on people who committed adultery, fuelling discrimination within churches.
Already, HIV is clouded by numerous outlandish theories such as the “Gay Related Immunodeficiency Disease (GRID)” and the “God punishment theory,” which assumes that the disease is holy punishment for so-called “immoral acts.”
A short history of AIDS
The first reported case of AIDS in Zimbabwe occurred in 1985. By the end of the 1980s, around 10% of the adult population was thought to be infected with HIV. This figure rose dramatically in the first half of the 1990s, peaking and stabilising at 29% between 1995 and 1997. But since this point, the HIV infection rate is thought to have declined, making Zimbabwe one among many African countries to witness a drastic decline in prevalence.
Ever since then, more than 75 million people have contracted the illness, over 36 million have died from an HIV-related cause and 71% of the HIV/AIDS-related deaths in 2011 were people living in Africa.
Enduring Fear and Stigma
In Africa, some haven’t grasped the reality of HIV. There are people who still think it is embarrassing to be known as HIV-positive. Cases have been reported of children born with HIV—stressed, depressed, and (rightfully) feeling they do not deserve it. Others commit suicide because they would find it better not to be in a world full of hate, stigma, ignorance and discrimination.
HIV is similar to most chronic diseases in Africa due to the fact that one is required to take medication everyday for the rest of their lives. But it’s the way HIV is contracted that makes people ashamed to be associated with PLHIV or have their status known which then ropes in self-discrimination.
Anecdotally, I know that people’s HIV status has been used against them at work, community and in civil courts all in bids for revenge. In extreme cases, people threaten to disclose another’s status to their partners, relatives and family.
Globally, close to 19 million people aren’t aware that they have HIV. Of these, mothers who didn’t have access to the drugs that could ensure HIV-free pregnancies infected 3.2 million children.
Annah Sango, a Zimbabwean HIV activist laments the stigmatization, which she feels is still rampant despite the great strides Africa has made to tackle HIV.
“HIV is still viewed as something that is not real and every time they have sex, the history of the one they have it with is not known. They are at a risk and that’s a fact,” she adds.
Professor Norman Nyazema, a researcher on HIV said: “HIV is still and is an exceptional disease and it somewhat attracts some special attention to it. People do talk about other diseases but when it comes to HIV, the story changes. As long as celebrities like Sheen, get that much attention for announcing their status, HIV will continue to be viewed as a scary disease. HIV has to be normalised, like any other disease e.g. diabetes, Hypertension, cancer or flue. That way, people won’t just marvel when they hear that so and so has HIV, or died of AIDS.”
Medical experts go on to say that one who is HIV-positive has a longer lifespan than a person who has cancer or diabetes, and that with consistent use of ARVs, the viral load in the body will be supressed. Despite this existing knowledge, society is still afraid of the disease.
Paving the way forward with understanding
UNAIDS has set a 90:90:90 target for 2020 to accelerate epidemic control. That is, 90% of PLHIV will know their status, 90% of those that know their status are adherent to antiretroviral treatment (ART), and 90% of those on ART are virally suppressed.
This year, World Aids Day 2015 Theme has been envisaged to be “Getting to Zero” by the World AIDS Campaign. Here is a caution: There will never be a “getting to zero” unless stigma and discrimination is completely wiped out. Until we understand the implications of HIV (as we do any other viral disease like influenza), we will continue to undermine efforts to reduce Africa’s prevalence rate.◊
Nokuthaba Mathema is a freelance journalist from Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. Her passion lies in health and gender parity. But her area of interest is gender equality and sexual and reproductive health rights, amongst other human rights that are not taken seriously in her country.
This article was originally published on http://urgentactionfund-africa.or.ke/ as part of the 16 Days of Activism Series we are running together with them.
Main image taken from www.businessinsider.com