By Bibi Khatoon
“If you’re diagnosed with HIV and you ain’t getting no support, no love, everybody just like discriminating you, that is what does break you down and kill you faster than anything else,”- a 37-year-old woman who is living with HIV.
HIV means Human Immunodeficiency Syndrome. This virus usually enters the body through sexual intercourse, sharing of drug needles or mother to child transmission through infected blood, semen and vaginal fluids.
The body’s immune system is the first place the virus would attack weakening its defence to fight off diseases which can progress to AIDS (Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome).
During a sit-down with the News Room, the 37-year-old mother of three disclosed that she was diagnosed with HIV earlier this year. Due to the fear of being discriminated because of her positive status, she asked to remain anonymous and throughout the article, we shall refer to her as ‘Jean.’
March 2019 was the month that Jean’s life would change. She, her husband and friends were travelling to Stabroek Market, Georgetown to dine at a nearby restaurant – Demico Bar.
While making their way to the restaurant, their curiosity was piqued by the presence of a booth managed by Artiste in Direct Support.
The Non-Governmental Organisation was at the time offering free testing for HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases to the public.
“I never have a problem in going and get tested…so everybody [went] and get tested,” Jean told the News Room.
After they all agreed to do the test, nothing seemed off at first for Jean because she knew the testing steps for HIV. Everyone’s result showed negative except Jean leaving her in disbelief.
Before that day, two years ago Jean tested negative. “I had a doubt,” she said.
In that moment of being shown a positive result, the only thing that came to Jean’s mind what that of her children who are between the ages of 6 and 15.
“In a way, I break down but I said plain and straight, life ain’t over for me,” she remembered telling herself.
“Only thing I does be studying most is my children,” Jean explained.
To this day, Jean is not sure how she was infected but she has a strong feeling it may have been from her ex-spouse.
From time to time they would “hook-up” and she would freely have sex with him even though they were separated. After the split, the man migrated to Barbados and it was during one of his visits to Guyana the two rekindled.
“He come back home and I went trying like to say well…just for my son sake, let us try to make amends and see so I ain’t know if [that is how] I get it.”
After fully accepting her results, Jean began to take her antiretroviral treatment in May to help control the virus within her body.
Research has documented that such treatment can help a person diagnosed with HIV live a long and healthy life once they are committed.
Jean takes her medication at 19:00hrs daily – a commitment she plans to stick to for the rest of her life. Her drive is to be alive so she wouldn’t miss the opportunity of seeing her children become adults.
“I say just as how I commit to my children, I [will] commit to [that] because if I could [take those tablets] and it will give me longer life, at least I will see [my] children them get big and reach of age that they can do things for themselves.”
Meanwhile, Jean’s husband who got tested on that fateful day remains negative.
The couple now share three years of marriage. According to her, her husband’s love is proven because he does not use a condom with her even though he knows of her positive status – another reason she sticks to her medication.
“I explain to the doctor and they said [not to force] he [to use the condom], cause they say if I use my medication, it is hard for him to get contaminated but he goes for checkups,” Jean noted.
Jean’s support system includes her husband and other family members who make certain that she remains in good health and is taking her medication on time.
In fact, she said that support is what kept her alive. By sharing her story Jean is urging persons to give the same support to their relative who was diagnosed with HIV so that they can continue to live a productive life.
“In a way, if you diagnosed with HIV and you ain’t getting no support, no love, everybody just like discriminating you, that is what does break you down and kill you faster than anything else.
“So far I thank God, I does get my support.” Jean believes that the time is now for everyone to put an end to the discrimination against persons living with HIV.
Through Artistes in Direct Support, Jeans received counselling and has access to a nurse who can answer her many questions.
It was at the Nurse’s office where we spoke with Jean.
Sheridan Bacchus, who many refer to as ‘Nurse Bacchus’, is known for her years of counselling and support. Bacchus joined Artiste in Direct Support two years ago.
“I know how important it is because, I’ve seen persons who were considered end of life care and with support from persons with good nutrition, with adherence to medication, I saw the reverse where persons were at the level of AIDS and they reverse to HIV,” Bacchus said.
Bacchus believes discrimination in Guyana is mainly fueled by the misguided perception that everyone who is HIV positive automatically carries the AIDS virus also.
“We don’t just look at somebody and say he got AIDS,” she the nurse.
AIDS is developed when the immune system of an HIV positive person becomes infected with another disease and the body is not strong enough to fight off that new infection.
While there are successes in the medical world of finding a cure for HIV and by extension AIDS, persons like Jean are using their story to encourage persons to get tested and start early treatment.
“My advice to everybody, young, old, everybody, the best thing to know is your status. And from the minute that you know it, don’t afraid to start drinking your medication,” Jean said.
“If you start drinking one tablet, for years you can go drinking that one tablet. But if you leave it to go on, you gon have to drink ten, seven, eight tablets one time.”
Guyana’s Minister of Public Health, Volda Lawrence recently revealed that the Ministry has since recorded 500 new HIV infections during 2018 mainly from key populations.
Figures by the Pan-American Health Organisation/World Health Organisation (PAHO/WHO) show that the estimated number of persons living with HIV a decade ago was 5,900.
UNAIDS 2016 report showed that this number increased to 8,500 persons, however, in 2018 that number was reduced by 300.
Of that amount, 93 per cent know their status while 73 per cent of those are on treatment and 81 per cent on treatment have been virally suppressed, according to PAHO/WHO Country Representative, Dr. William Adu-Krow.
Guyana is the first country in the Caribbean to achieve the first of three over 90% target set by the United Nations. The United Nations is working to have over 90% of all HIV-positive persons diagnosed, 90% of those are provided with antiretroviral therapy and for 90% of those being treated to be virally suppressed by the end of 2020.
World AIDS Day will be observed on December 1. The theme for this year is “Communities make the difference” recognising the importance of persons at the community level to fight the disease.