9 November 2012

Zimbabwe: Reflections of the Epidemic


Zimbabwe joins the rest of the world to mark World Aids Day on December 1. It is 25 years after the first case was reported in Zimbabwe and in the US the first case was in 1981.

By 1988 all blood products were screened for HIV locally. The International Aids Society saw the need to have a World Aids Day and the first was marked in 1988. It became an event to be marked the world over as one of the most recognised international health days and a key opportunity to raise HIV awareness, commemorate those who have passed on, celebrate victories such as increased access to treatment and prevention services.

The 2012 theme for World Aids Day is "Working Together for an Aids-Free Generation". Zimbabwe has embraced the 4 zeros - Zero Aids-related deaths, Zero discrimination, Zero new infections and Zero tolerance to gender-based violence.

Most people have lost loved ones, be they relatives and friends and will light a candle in their memory.

With the Aids pandemic peaking in Zimbabwe in the late 90s, it was like a death sentence to test HIV positive. The doctors and health personnel were baffled and did not know much but offered palliative care and support to ease the pain. Medicine to reverse the HIV symptoms was not available locally and beyond the reach of many.

I remember in 1995 my brother Cloudios got ill. He had tuberculosis and wasted away. Back then, the daily dots treatment required that one goes to the clinic to take the TB medication. With one being in bad shape and having to walk to the clinic daily, it was an uphill task. He, however, trudged on and overcame the bout of TB and went back to work.

He was to get a bad bout of cerebral malaria and was hospitalised at Howard Mission Hospital in 1999. But with no anti-HIV medication this time around he could not make it. He died within a week.

Many people have stories to tell as nearly no family remains unscathed by the epidemic.

Shingi Matogo, a person living with HIV, marks WAD every year. She was diagnosed in 1986 and with no medication then she owes her life to God's mercy and love. She remembers her sister who passed away in 1999 and her daughter who passed away in 2001. She also lost uncles, aunts, and a lot of friends. She therefore dedicates this day to them.

Today Matogo strives to raise awareness and offer a helping hand to those in need. Matogo celebrates the strides that science and medicine have made and is today on medication, which has given her a new lease of life.

"Even those being diagnosed today, we make sure that they are not walking alone. They have shoulders to lean on, people like us who have disclosed their statuses," she said.

"I am grateful that I made it to the day when medicine became available. It was hard before the advent of ARVs. We have orphans in our communities - neighbours and friends who left children behind.

"There is no family that remains untouched by the epidemic and WASD is a reminder to all those loved ones we lost," said Matogo.

Left with orphans to fend for, Shingi and friends formed Clear Vision Trust in Glen View in 2004. Shingi lost four founder members of Clear Vision to cervical cancer and this got her deeply thinking.

"Despite being well after being initiated on ART, I lost four founder members of Clear Vision to cervical cancer," said Matogo.

She has taken an initiative to raise cervical cancer awareness. Matogo said usually by the time a woman is diagnosed with cervical cancer it would have spread and it would be too late to save their lives.

"My four friends were diagnosed when the cancer was advanced and had spread. It got me thinking and I have embarked on a project to raise awareness," said Matogo.

"I called this project campaign Chipfukuto in that when one realises they have cervical cancer it would be too late so I am calling on all women to get screened for cancer," said Matogo.

"When I made my research I found that women coming from as far as Muzarabani had cervical cancer and information was lacking in the rural areas, so I saw it necessary that awareness reaches them," she said.

"For townfolks, hospitals like Spilhaus and Parirenyatwa offer the service but for my rural sisters it is not the same. Women living positively are prone to cervical cancer and all the women I met were living positively," said Matogo.

Matogo said lack of funds is hampering her campaign to reach as many rural women as possible.

"We are currently relying on well-wishers and today have received funding from Mahaka Media, Classic Carpets and Danzigar and Partners. We ask more stakeholders to come and help because the need is great," she said. Shingi is a trained family systemic counsellor.

Olive Mtabeni of Life Empowerment Support Organisation is another person who will travel to Beitbridge where the WAD commemorations will be held this year. She is the founder of LESO, which works in Chitungwiza, Damofalls and Warren Park.

Mtabeni, a retired nurse, offers home-based care support and life skills training. Funds permitting she has had invitation to have LESO open in Chinhoyi and even Bulawayo.

"LESO offers home-based care and support. It is voluntary work and we will be holding a candlelight memorial today in Chitungwiza," said the soft spoken Mtabeni.

In Zimbabwe the WAD commemoration rotates in the 10 provinces. Last year it was held in Manicaland in Sakubva and the year before it was in Kadoma. Matebeleland South's Dulibadzimu Stadium is the scene of this year's event.

HIV is everyone's responsibility. A billboard in Chivhu reads: "Everyone can get HIV, everyone can stop the spread of HIV".

It is therefore everyone's responsibility to stop the spread of HIV. With 467 000 currently on active ART and even more (593 000) awaiting access to medication, it is high time we halted new HIV infections.

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