More than three decades into South Africa’s HIV epidemic, HIV knowledge in the country is dropping and falling levels of HIV savvy may have real consequences for those living with HIV.
When Mashudu Tambudzani disclosed her HIV-positive status to her family, those she loved most ostracised her. They forbade her from visiting for fear that they would catch the virus.
Worse yet, her 13-year-old daughter Mulamuleli was bullied because of it.
“Life has been very difficult for me since I found out that I was HIV positive three years ago,” Mashudu said. “I chose to come clean about my status and told everyone close to me, but they started treating me very badly.”
“They never wanted me to visit them in their houses because they thought I would infect them,” she added.
What you don’t know can hurt you, others
HIV can only be passed from one person to another via exposure to infected body fluids like blood, semen, vaginal secretions and breast milk. It is transmitted usually via unprotected sex but can also be transmitted by sharing needles or from a mother to her child during pregnancy, birth or breastfeeding.
You cannot catch HIV from casual contact like hugging, shaking hands or sharing food or drink with people living with HIV.
About one in 10 South Africans is living with HIV, according to the Human Sciences Research Council’s (HSRC) latest national household HIV survey. Despite this high HIV prevalence rate, the survey found that levels of accurate knowledge about how the virus is transmitted have declined nationally.
This decrease has been accompanied by an increase of risk behaviours, noted HSRC researchers. It may also be driving stigma.
Released earlier this year, South Africa’s first HIV stigma index measured levels of stigma and discrimination due to HIV status among more than 10,000 people living with the disease. The survey found high levels of self blame and shame among people living with the virus.
About 10 percent of those surveyed reporting being excluded from a family or social gathering in the last year and about half of these people – like Mashudu – felt their HIV status was the cause.
About one in 10 of those surveyed also reported having considered suicide.
Read: HIV prevention can help revive small town South Africa
Health workers pave way for acceptance
For Tambudzani, help came from some caring nurses at her local clinic who recently held HIV education sessions for the community to help dispel myths and set the record straight.
Now, her family have opened their arms to her and her neighbours are slowly starting to accept Mashudu back into the fold.
Her sister, Thivhulawi, said she is ashamed of how she treated Mashudu at first.
“When she told me her status, I just could not accept her. She is my sister and yet I rejected her because I had very little knowledge about HIV at the time,” Thivhulawi said. “It pains me when I look at her now to think of all the bad things I said and did to her when she disclosed.
“I even told people in the village that she was HIV positive and they also treated her badly,” she admitted.
“She used to tell us that HIV could only pass from one person to another through sexual intercourse or by blood, but we did not believe her,” Thivhulawi added.
Mulamuleli said that school has become a much nicer place since nurses conducted HIV education.
“My friends used to tell me that my mother was going to die because she is HIV positive,” Mulamuleli said. “I used to cry but as time has gone on, I got used to it.”
“I love my mother unconditionally so her status does not change my love for her,” added the teen.
Mashudu said that she feels great relief at being accepted back into the fold.
"Now that people are aware of my status and have accepted me, I feel like a burden has been lifted from my shoulders,” she said. “I am happy to live a normal life with my family and my community again.”
“My advice to people out there is to never look at a person living with HIV as though they are different from you,” Mashudu said. “All you have to do is to understand their situation and accept them the way they are so that a world can be a better place for all,” concluded Mashudu.
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