Dealing with HIV

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As Nigeria joined the rest of the world to commemorate this year’s World AIDS Day recently, Martins Ifijeh chronicles the lives of Nigerians who are living with the HIV/AIDS virus

Mrs. Morenike (not real name) waited three long years after marriage before she could feel the joy of being pregnant. The Idea of having her own baby overwhelmed her that she couldn’t wait for three months before registering for antenatal.

Few weeks into the pregnancy, she joyfully went to the family clinic to register for antenatal. She didn’t want anything to happen to her or her unborn child.

But after all initial tests required of a pregnant woman during registration for ANC were done; the doctor broke the news to her that she was Human Immuno Virus (HIV) positive. He referred her to one of the general hospitals in Lagos for further confirmation.

Typical with human nature, Morenike didn’t believe the report. Together with her husband, they went to the general hospital where the earlier result was corroborated.

“I was devastated. My joy turned into sadness. I was already imagining myself becoming a carcass one day with an emaciated body, who soon will leave this earth. But during the heart-to-heart session at the hospital, we were counseled. We were told that gone were the days when people die from HIV AIDS because of lack of drugs. I was told we can lead normal lives if we are placed on anti retroviral drugs (ARD), and if we adhere to taking our drugs as at when due.”

Morenike was also told that if she commences medication immediately without missing it daily, her unborn child would not be positive to it.
“It was a reassuring hope, but it took me several months before I came to terms with the fact that I am now living with HIV,” she said.

Morenike’s eight-months-old baby girl was eventually born without contracting the virus. She and her husband are on daily dose of ARD and are living healthy lives.

When 32-year-old Tobi (not real name) was in her teenage years, all she wanted for her future was a comfortable life so she could lift her parents out of poverty. She had thought she would end up having a good job, marry the man of her dreams, have three beautiful children, and become like the society women she sees on television.

At 16, she was already working towards that dream. She had passed her secondary school final examinations and soon gained admission into the Lagos State University to read Public Administration. In 2008, a year after she finished her youth service, she married one of her seniors back in school. Every script she had written in her head as a young girl were coming to pass one after the other

But in August 2010, life served her lemons. Her husband was diagnosed of HIV after bouts of ill health. She couldn’t believe her once handsome heartthrob was becoming a shadow of his former self. He became thin, lost his job due to sickness, and she could see productive years disappear from him. All he was doing was struggling to live.

“We were treating him for tuberculosis, and soon kidney issues followed. Doctors told us the virus had moved to an advanced stage, that if he had presented on time, ARD would have been able to keep him for several more decades in a healthy state.” she said.

Tobi’s husband died in February 2012, leaving her to grapple with the virus which he had passed on to her. “Not in my wildest dream would I have thought I will have a family member who is HIV positive, not to mention having it myself. I used to think the illness only happens to people in faraway lands.

“Between 2010 and 2014, my life was in shambles. I saw my world crumble like a pack of cards. All the dreams I wanted to fulfill with my husband turned into mirage. The only thing left for me is my parents. I only started picking myself up few years ago,” she explained.

Despite Tobi not able to make lemonades from the lemons life served her, she was able to learn some lessons. She knew if they had had HIV test before the marriage, they both would have been aware of their status, which means the husband would have been on ARD to keep him healthy. She learnt HIV is only a death sentence to those who are either unaware of their status, refuse to be placed on drugs, or those who were diagnosed at a very late stage, the kind that could be regarded as Acquired Immune Disease Syndrome (AIDS). Tobi is currently on ARD and she is living healthy despite having the virus.

Tobi, who has refused to get married since her husband’s death fears rejection, hence the decision not to give in to any man who asks for her hand in marriage, “I believe once I tell them my status, they will not only run away, but will stigmatise me. So I run from advances from me. The only one who was persistent, and insisted that he must marry me eventually disappeared the day I told him I was HIV positive,” she added.

It was not so different with Oscar. He was not aware that HIV does not have favoritism. He thought he was too cool to ever contract the virus. At 20, his bodycount was already 18. Among the 18 girls he slept with at the time, he agreed to forcefully sleeping with three. To him and his friends, the more girls you sleep with, the more respect you get among your peers. It was an achievement he looked forward to every day.

There were times Oscar and his friends passed on girls to each other. An attitude they believed cemented their friendship as boys. Despite the loose lifestyle, Oscar never believed in sex with condoms. He said condoms make sex boring. “The few times I tried using condom I didn’t enjoy it, so I stopped. I never believed I will ever contract HIV.”

But like the biblical saying that whatsoever a man sows he reaps, Oscar soon reaped the fruit of his promiscuity and risky lifestyle. He is 27 years and currently living with HIV.

“I first noticed I was not immune to the virus, when on December 1st 2015 I bumped into a free HIV testing campaign in Computer Village, Ikeja. After the test, I was told my test showed positive to the virus. I was advised to do a further test in any lab of my choice. The results came out the same.”

Though Oscar broke down for several months, he is now back on his feet after undergoing several bouts of counseling. He is currently on ARD. He says his greatest challenge right now is stigmatisation, as he has lost an otherwise lucrative job because medical screening, a prerequisite for getting the job, was done after he had passed all processes required to get the job.

“If not for this virus, I would have been working at the airport today, supplying Jet A1 to airlines. But I lost it. I am praying government and stakeholders find a cure for this disease one day,” he said.

“How much tragedy can a woman endure in her life time. How much?,” These were the first words of Ada when she decided to open up to THISDAY about her status as a person living with HIV.

Her trouble started in 2007 when she and her husband discovered they were infected with HIV. It was a barrage of blame game between them on who may have possibly infected the other.

He would beat her up at every opportunity. Throw her things out of the house. In some instances he would attempt to strangulate her to death because he believed she infected him. But Ada said she was very sure her late husband was the one who brought the virus home because she married him a virgin.

Soon, her husband got ill, and his family placed all the blame on her, until he finally died in 2010, leaving her to suffer the stigma and shame due to the incessant quarrel on who must have infected the other.

“Both my family and his rejected me and my three children. Our landlord threw us out of our house. We started living from hand to mouth, begging everyone we met for food,” she said tearfully.

It wasn’t long after, Ada lost her first daughter to the illness. She thought of relocating from Lagos to her village in Ebonyi State, but everyone in her village already knew she and her children were HIV positive, hence she shoved off the idea.

Ada, who said she eventually broke down in front of her Revered Father, as there was nowhere else to go, was then taken by him to a nongovernmental organisation for support. “They gave me counseling, took care of my children and ensured that we were all placed on ARD. As at today, I and my children are living our lives one day at a time. Though I feel the pain of what my life has turned out, my children have become a source of joy to me everyday,” she said.

Statistics
Tobi, Oscar and Ada are not the only ones who have experienced the pain of living with the virus in Nigeria; statistics show that over three million Nigerians are currently living with the disease that leaves sorrow, tears and blood on its path.

A virologist, Dr. Ogbejiele Wilson, said while ARD can help in managing the disease and ensure other Nigerians do not get infected, majority of the three million Nigerians positive to the disease were either not aware they have it, or are not on the drugs.

Transmission
He said the virus could be transmitted through bodily fluids that include: blood, semen, vaginal and rectal fluid, and breast milk. He emphasised that the most common methods of infection was through unprotected sex. Others, he said include sharing needles, syringes, among others.

“HIV does NOT spread through skin-to-skin contact, hugging, shaking hands, or kissing, air or water, eating or drinking items, saliva, tears, or sweat (unless mixed with blood from an infected person), sharing a toilet, towels, or bedding, mosquitoes or other insects,” he added.

He said it does not show symptoms at first, especially for most people, adding that noticeable symptoms include fever, swollen lymph glands and general aches and pains. “The clinical latent infection, or chronic stage of HIV can last from a few years to a few decades. During this time the virus is still reproducing, but at lower levels.”

Prevention
On prevention, he said there was presently no vaccine against it. “Abstaining from sex to a great extent eliminates the risk, but you can lower your risk considerably by taking a few precautions.”

Precautions
The precautions, according to him include regular screening to know status, “Get tested for other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). If you have one, get treated, because having an STD increases the risk of HIV.

“Learn the correct way to use condoms, and use them every time you have sex, except with a partner who are not engaging in sexual intercourse with any other person except you (vice versa). Married couples should stick to their partners.

“Have only one sexual partner who only has sex with you. If you have HIV, lower the risk of transmitting it to your sexual partner by taking your medicines as directed,” he added.

Political Will
Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, while speaking at the 2018 World AIDS Day commemoration in Abuja last week said by 2030 the health challenge will be a thing of the past.

He said to achieve this, the federal government will provide sustained political will at the highest level and increase funding for HIV response across all states of the federation.

He said like other countries, the ambitious goal of ending AIDS epidemic by 2030 was achievable in Nigeria, adding that among the series of events to meet the target was the commencement of the National AIDS Indicator and Impact Survey (NAIIS) in all 36 states of the federation which was flagged off by President Muhammadu Buhari in June this year.

“The survey aims at providing a reliable baseline against which we can monitor our performance as a country. I understand that the survey has made remarkable progress, and the results will be available by March 2019.

“We are closer to ending the AIDs epidemic. Having HIV diagnosis today implies something very different from what we had 20 years ago. Research has delivered improved medicines, technologies and approaches to service delivery and holds even greater promise for what will be obtained in the future.

“Today, with more access to treatment and care, people living with HIV can live healthier and more fulfilling lives.”

Gap in Diagnosis
The Director General, National Agency for the Control of AIDS (NACA) Dr. Sani Aliyu, who spoke on the 2018 World AIDS Day theme: ‘Know Your Status,’ said the focus of this year’s commemoration was apt given that the gap in HIV diagnosis was a major stumbling block for the country’s HIV programme towards achieving the 90-90-90 targets.

The DG said: “I acknowledge especially the funding and technical support of the United States Government and the Global Fund. Beyond the HIV burden, the NAIIS survey presently ongoing will provide reliable data on HIV incidence, viral suppression among people living with HIV who are on treatment, and the prevalence of hepatitis B and C.

“The results of this survey will improve our understanding of the Nigerian HIV epidemic and provide more accurate and reliable data for planning and decision making.”

He also advised persons already living with the virus to ensure they take their drugs regularly as prescribed so they can lead healthy lives.