Not everyone is happy to disclose their HIV/aids status, but it’s all about taking responsibility for your life. Unfortunately, we live in a society where people have unprotected sex or share needles. Both of these actions can open a person to HIV infection. If you’re HIV positive, it’s always best to tell your partner your status. It’s their choice to decide what they want to do with that information.
Maureen Nyanto (32) did so, and opening up about her status opened many opportunities for her. She didn’t have to live a life of lies and now finds joy in helping other people who are HIV positive. Maureen hails from Zeerust, a poor rural community where people are still not educated about the dangers of HIV/Aids.
Maureen talks proudly about being a counsellor at the Department of Health and how her contribution makes a difference in people’s lives. “I’ve been a counsellor for five years and my job is meaningful because I help people in a big way. I prepare them for their ARV treatments and I’m there to listen to anyone who needs an ear. I’m able to offer advice on issues related to HIV/ Aids. My job makes me happy as I get to interact constantly with people.” Maureen’s job responsibilities include data capturing, counselling, organising support groups and fighting for her community to get help from the government.
Maureen doesn’t know who infected her with the virus. “I don’t know exactly when I got infected,” she says. “I found out about my status by chance. I was pregnant in 1999 and had been visiting my mother in Johannesburg. I went to a clinic there and did all the blood tests, including a test for HIV/Aids. Two weeks later, the test came back positive. I never thought I’d be infected with the virus because I’m a Christian and a member of the Zion Christian Church. I knew I was a child of God who constantly prayed, so I didn’t understand why I was infected. It was not supposed to happen to me. I didn’t believe that I was capable of carrying that virus in my body.”
But sadly, the reality is that many people like Maureen never think it will happen to them. Maureen says that the nurses told her she had a year to live and was going to die. “I was so stressed to find out that I had 12 months to live. Obviously, I was misinformed because I’m still alive. I didn’t know how I was going to survive, knowing that I was pregnant and was going to die soon. I was alone and scared because my boyfriend had disappeared. Although my mother was always there to guide me, it was not easy to accept that I was HIV positive. I was paranoid because I thought that people could see I was HIV positive. I didn’t realise it was all in my head,” she says.
Because Maureen knew her HIV status, she was able to follow the Prevention of Mother to Child Transmission (PMCT) procedures, and her son was born HIV negative. “I was given a single dose of a drug called Nevirapine (it is used to prevent HIV from spreading to the uninfected cells in the body) as I went into labour and my baby took the same drug for a few days once he was born.”
Now, she’s pregnant again. “We carefully planned this pregnancy, together with our doctor. And I’m currently on the PMCT dual treatment procedures (taking Alluvia and Lamzid) that will protect our child and make sure that he or she is born HIV negative. My husband and I are very happy. I’m on ARVs and my husband is always there to remind me when I forget to take my medication,” says Maureen.
People still get shocked when she tells them that she’s HIV positive and expecting a child. Maureen has never been bedridden because she looks after her health. She recalls the time when she decided to disclose her status to her church congregation. “People are uninformed and don’t realise how important it is to get as much information about HIV/Aids as they can,” she says. She finds it strange that people still don’t believe that they can also be infected if they don’t take care of themselves.
Maureen emphasises the importance of testing for sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and getting treatment. “People who have STDs seldom go to the doctor,” she says. “But it’s important to get treatment, especially if they are HIV positive. Some people believe in traditional medicine for healing, but that doesn’t help them in the long run.”
Maureen is passionate about educating people about these matters and gets frustrated when they don’t listen. “What people don’t realise is that it’s easy to re-infect yourself or your partner if you don’t get treatment. “It’s no secret that people engage in unprotected sex and it’s important to use a condom every time you have sex to avoid STDs and HIV. I educate people about these issues and try to persuade them to disclose their status in their relationships,” she says.
She also encourages people to do voluntary HIV testing. “It’s important to do the test because the sooner you find out about your status, the sooner you can get help. By taking care of yourself, it shows that you are responsible. Even if you are not sick, you need to know where you stand in terms of your health. I cannot stress enough that everyone should use condoms every time they have sex and take responsibility for their lives,” she concludes.