Lusikisiki — Stigma and ignorance around HIV nearly cost Nozibele Mditshwa her life.
This 42-year old mother of two was born and bred in the Eastern Cape village of Lusikisiki. She first became sick with shingles in 2002, and went to a traditional healer for treatment. But the symptoms didn’t abate and actually worsened until she had to have surgery at the local St Elizabeth Hospital.
A year later Nozibele became very ill. She lost her appetite, lost a lot of weight and was coughing heavily. She was tested for tuberculosis (TB) and the results came back positive. "I started on TB treatment, but I was very negative about it because I had to take so many tablets," Nozibele admitted.
Despite recurring illness, she didn’t think to have herself tested for HIV until she met Nolusapho Gxulu from the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) who educated Nozibele about HIV and suggested that she have herself tested.
Unfortunately she had a very bad experience when she went to be tested. "I went for an HIV test, but there was no privacy in the consulting room, and the result was shared with everyone in the room," said a tearful Nozibele. The results were positive, and without being properly informed about the disease she was sent home with a month’s supply of vitamin supplements and antibiotic tablets.
She hardly new anything about the disease, and decided to joining an HIV support group at the Village Clinic in Lusikisiki where they taught her the importance of a CD4 count and helped her to access treatment.
"My CD4 count was 24 and I developed vaginal and oral thrush, and oral hairy leukoplakia (a white patch on the side of the tongue with a corrugated or hairy appearance)," Nozibele described her symptoms.
She received treatment for her thrush, but was still sceptical about starting antiretroviral treatment. "By that time I had fears of starting antiretroviral treatment because of stigma attached to HIV and wrong information about ARV's. But at the same time I did not want to die," she said.
With the encouragement of family, friends and TAC members, Nozibele eventually decided to get ARV treatment. “After six months my CD4 count was 224,” she said with a smile.
But like many patients, after a couple of years on ARVs Nozibele started to experience some side effects – her breasts grew and she developed lipodystrophy. After a clinical assessment her ARV treatment was adjusted and most of the worst of the side effects have subsided.
“I am happy with my treatment, and it is not about body shape but it is all about good health and living a positive life," she said.
"I encourage all ARV patients to adhere to their treatment. You don’t have to disclose your status when you are not ready, but you need to accept it and wait for the right time when you are ready and motivated," Mditshwa said.