In this poignant blog piece, Nyasha Chizororo shares her recent bereavement.
Recently I watched a 19 year old close relative die an agonising death. The last two months of his life were excruciating as he retreated further and further into a world of increasing pain. He was HIV positive and was diagnosed with the virus at the age of 14 after a doctor recommended the test when a bad cough kept on worsening.
Although he underwent some counselling the shock was just too heavy. A few months after discovering his status, the teenager was in a bad place psychologically. He would not take his ARVs and generally went about his life as though he expected to die on any given day. His deterioration was gradual and the end was long drawn and terrible. He passed away alone in a hospital in the middle of the night. By that time we were all praying for him to rest because of the agony he was in.
A lonely road for many
While visiting the relative in different Harare hospitals I came across several young people in almost similar circumstances. By chatting to relatives I discovered that there are many youths aged less that 24 who are developing full blown AIDS and a disturbing number of them are dying. Before my relative finally succumbed I had watched seven other young people die within a period of two months. This was only in the places I was in at that given time. What was happening and is still happening in all the other hospitals and clinics around the country, my guess is as good as yours.
A doctor at one hospital told us that most of the extreme cases of AIDS that they are still handling are of young people between the ages of 10 and 25.
"Some of them would have gotten the virus from their mother while others are getting infected through early sexual activity. But at this point it does not matter how it came about. What they need is support and counselling because a lot of them just cannot deal with a positive result," the doctor counselled us.
We had walked the road and we knew what he was talking about. "I will die before I turn 20 anyway, so I might as well make the best of the days I have left," my relative told me at one point when I tried to tell him that living with HIV is not the end of the world. "And, anyway, you have never been an HIV positive teen so you can never understand what I am going through," he threw at me and I had no comeback.
Destroyed by myths
My young relative was not equipped to deal with HIV because he did not know much about the virus. He told me that his friends had told him that the ARVs given to young people were designed to make them think they are okay when in reality they would be dying piecemeal.
"These tablets kill you slowly but all the time you think you are doing fine. Then suddenly around the time you turn 20 you just die. THEY do not want HIV positive children getting married because THEY think we will spread the virus," my relative informed me. THEY being some nebulous sinister forces including the government and aid agencies.
He was also bitter about getting the virus by default, as he called it. He meant that it had been transmitted to him by his mother at 'manufacture'. But even more than that, he believed that his strain of HIV was more virulent because it had developed right at his core during his formative stage while ARVs had been designed for people who got a 'surface' infection later on in life. Other myths that he believed in included that smoking weed would keep the virus at bay.
Trying to argue with him did not yield any mindset shift. He was convinced that there was a world conspiracy against HIV positive people especially the young. Well-meaning people like me trying to convince him otherwise were just ignorant. The bottom line was that he no longer trusted anyone or believed in anything.
When we went to bury our relative at Granville Cemetery (Kumbudzi) we were even more grief stricken to come across a fresh grave of someone that we had once known as a very young child. She had died at the age of 21. Looking around the cemetery I saw more graves of young people between 17 and 24. There were much older people buried there so I am sure that it is not as if the place is reserved for youths.
Of course I did not conclude that they all died from HIV related illnesses, but I still feel that as a country we need to worry about burying so many young people. But to worry about it we first of all have to recognise that there is a problem. Where are the statistics to tell us how many young people are dying and from what causes? We were told that HIV is no longer the number one killer having given way to cancer. But is this true for all age groups? And who is to say that cancer is not being driven by HIV?
Can we save them?
My young relative started out with so many dreams and died young with few achievements and no hope. When it came to the crunch and he got really ill, he wanted to get better. He did not want to die. I do not know if he ever wished he had tried to take his ARVs religiously and followed the other guidelines for living with HIV. But he definitely did hope to get better. Sadly for him it was not to be.
Could he have been saved? Yes, I believe so. If someone had designed HIV messages aimed at young people living with HIV as they have done with adults then maybe they could have reached my relative and all the other young people dying out there. All the HIV awareness adverts directed to young people that I have ever seen are about abstinence as the only way to avoid infection. What about those who are already infected? We need to get into their space too.
Maybe if I had known someone born with HIV who is now an adult and is leading a 'normal' life they could have convinced my relative to choose life. I hope some policymaker steps forward before it is too late and saves some of the other young people who are struggling with coming to terms with the virus.