10 June 2014

Malawi: Henry's Story - 'HIV Has Made Me Fearless'

At the age of 18 Henry, from Blantyre in Malawi, was shocked to discover he had been living with HIV all his life. Henry (not his real name) talks about how he has come to terms with his status.

Before I found out I was HIV positive, I suspected something was wrong. I got critically ill for the first time in my life and was admitted in hospital for measles and pneumonia. After I got better, I decided to go for full blood test, including HIV, because something inside still didn't feel right.

That was back in 2010, when I was 18. I lost my mind and had lots of unanswered questions: "How did I get it? (God knows, I was careful when it came to sex - and made sure I protected myself.) How am I going to tell my girlfriend? How is she going to react?"

Fears for the future

I was worried about my girlfriend, my future, my reputation and, worse still, a lifetime of taking medication. I was very bad at taking medicines. They made me sick and now I was going to take them twice a day, for the rest of my life. There was no way in hell this was going to happen.

My girlfriend did freak out after I disclosed my status to her, which was to be expected. At first, she didn't believe the story and thought I made it up just to break up with her.

After I showed her the test results from the hospital, she did believe me, and we agreed to go our separate ways. However, three months later we got back together and she has been supportive ever since.

Born with HIV

Six months after my HIV positive diagnosis, I learnt that my late mum was also HIV positive and that's how it was passed on to me. I was born with HIV.

"Wait a minute," I thought. "This means I have been living with the virus for over twenty years now? Wow! This virus isn't as lethal as I thought. Maybe HIV is not a death sentence after all."

However, I was infuriated with my mother, not necessarily because she gave me HIV but rather because she didn't tell me and I had to find out on my own. With time, I had to come to terms with the facts. I have now learnt how the virus can be passed on and the responsibility I have as an HIV positive person.

Not alone

Thanks to the International Maternal Pediatric Aids Clinical Trials Network (IMPAACT) and the Blantyre Malawi Community Advisory Board (CAB), and meeting other people with the virus, I now know I am not alone.

IMPAACT is a global network which evaluates programmes for treating and preventing HIV infection in infants, children, adolescents and pregnant women through clinical trials, while CAB links HIV researchers with the community. These groups helped me develop a better understanding of the virus and build my confidence through communicating and sharing personal stories with others who are going through similar experiences.

Even so, it is not easy living with HIV as an adolescent, because you have to keep secrets from your friends. You have to come up with a story when they catch you taking meds, especially in boarding school where it's hard to hide. Taking meds every morning is also not the best feeling for me, neither are hospital visits to collect medication.

Careful about disclosure

I'm always careful when it comes to disclosing my status and I advise my friends who are HIV positive to do the same. It is something you can't take back and it has lifelong consequences. In a world where everyone with HIV is associated with bad or immoral behavior, it changes people's opinion of you.

I have told a couple of my friends about my story and a few people outside my closest family. Some were shocked. Some didn't believe me, maybe because I looked in good health. The ignorance shown by many people scares me. Just because you look all healthy and smooth, it doesn't mean you are HIV negative - and vice versa.

On the other hand, HIV has made me fearless. I live my life on the edge now, because of it. To all the people living with the virus, especially the newly diagnosed, you should know that there is still hope and that it is not the end. You can live as long as anybody else - but you need to accept your condition and make positive changes in your life. You should also find a support network and read everything you can find about HIV. There is a lot of information out there.

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), an estimated 300,000 infants acquired HIV infection from their mothers in sub-Saharan Africa in 2011, 15,700 (5.2%) of whom were born in Malawi.

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