By Kurt Campbell
Josh (not his real name) was 17-years-old when he tested positive for the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV). At first, he couldn’t believe it. How could he have HIV? It could not be. It was just not possible.
He would go on to spend the next nine years of his life in that denial. He decided to test again and sure enough, he tested positive. Because he was so sick, close to the point of being diagnosed with life-threatening Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS), he was told to get treatment right away.
Thanks to that treatment, Josh is alive today. In fact, the virus is now undetectable.
He buried the truth of his diagnosis because of “fear of shame” – what others would say, how he would be treated. Would his friends ostracise him? Would his family disown him? Would he be able to get work? Crushed by the weight of those questions, he attempted suicide several times.
Today, Josh, now 31, has stepped forward to share his story, though he is not yet ready to identify himself. But even telling his story without saying his name is a giant step in a personal crusade to end stigma and discrimination against persons living with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
The first case of HIV was identified in the United States of America in 1981, but today, HIV positive persons are still scoffed at and scorned. Stigma and discrimination took a huge toll on Josh’s emotional well-being and mental health.
Josh, who is now a well-respected professional, recalls very vividly leaving school with a group of friends in normal fashion one Friday afternoon in 2007. As they were passing the neighbourhood clinic, a health worker encouraged them to take an HIV test.
Josh and four of his other friends agreed. They were all invited into a room and were administered a rapid test simultaneously. One by one, his other friends were told of their negative status and told to leave the room. Josh was asked to stay back.
The health worker delivered the news. He tested positive.
“Honestly, at that moment all I could have done was cry. I thought my life was over. I was educated about the virus and I thought it was going to deteriorate and die within a few months… I was crushed.”
His friends were waiting outside, impatient, and of course, curious about why he was in there so long.
“I washed my face after a lengthy talk from the nurse and faked a smile and went outside.”
He told his friends he tested negative; he had no explanation for their queries about why he was in the room that long. By Monday, he faced his first experience with stigma and discrimination. His friends had already started to tell others that they suspected he tested positive. He spent the entire day isolated and rejected.
That very afternoon, he attempted suicide. As time went by, he continued to deny his HIV status.
“People started to ask me about it, and I would also say it was not true and I would get so upset to the point that people really started to believe me,” he added.
Josh spent one more year in school before going out into the world of work. At his first job at a countryside call centre, he fell in love. He recalls the horror and uncertainty of what was the moral thing to do.
“I battled all the time with whether I should tell her or not tell her.”
Josh would spend a total of seven years in a relationship with the young woman while being HIV+ and living in denial.
“I started to lie about it so much that I believed the lie…I really believe that I was not HIV+,” he related.
By his 25th birthday, the young man’s health would take a turn for the worse.
“I used to see how people would treat others who they knew were HIV+ and I didn’t want that for myself…I was sick for an entire year and didn’t tell anyone. I stayed in my apartment and only went out at night,” he said.
Finally, by his 26th birthday, he visited a health facility and took another HIV test; the results came back positive.
A person with a healthy immune system normally has a CD4 count ranging from 500 to 1,600 cells per cubic millimetre of blood (cells/mm3); Josh’s CD4 count was just over 200 and close to a diagnosis of AIDS; he was advised to get on treatment immediately and he did.
Thanks to the treatment available free of charge in Guyana, the virus has been suppressed in Josh’s body to the point where it can no longer be detected by a standard blood test.
Josh remains troubled about how discrimination may be affecting others and perhaps they too are at that dark place he was when he attempted suicide.
There are an estimated 8, 500 persons who live with HIV in Guyana today. Like Josh, close to 6,000 of them are on antiretroviral treatment, with 75% of them seeing the viral load suppressed in their bodies.
Guyana recently launched a new National HIV Strategic Plan 2021- 2025 which aims to address the high levels of stigma and discrimination.