Virgins living with HIV: a reality for Zimbabwe

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Contrary to earlier researches that initially concluded that children born with HIV would not reach their fifth birthday, there is evidence of children who surpassed teenage-hood, leading very normal lives.
A recent visit to a local government clinic in Harare, confirmed that there was an increase in the number of teenage virgins who were taking anti-retroviral drugs.
“Yes there are a good number of such cases we are dealing with here and these also include teenage boys. It is such a miracle that these children are still living. Some of them have very low CD4 count,” said a nurse at Harare Central Hospital’s opportunistic infections clinic.
A student at a private college recently spoke about a college mate whose CD4 cell count had plunged down to 50, but looked as healthy as any other child in the school.
This student would sometimes attend lessons with a handkerchief tied around her mouth because of thrush (also known as candidiasis), a medical condition that is consistent with people living with HIV (PLWH).
A strong immune system keeps thrush at bay.
However for PLWH, the fungus grows unchecked, appearing in colonies of white patches in the mouth, throat, oesophagus (food tube) and female reproductive organ.
When the body’s CD4 count falls to below 350, the body’s immune system is no longer strong enough to prevent illness and infection. That is when a person starts taking treatment for HIV to delay the onset of full blown Aids.
“All you see in this girl is a cheerful and outgoing character. We eat, play and party with her. Her HIV status does not bother her at all. You wouldn’t know, until she has told you,” said fellow student Ash Miller.
Her openness about her condition is a clear indication that she received the necessary counselling to handle her HIV status.
However the same cannot be said about T Joyous (not her real name) who committed suicide about two years ago following a drug overdose.
Most family members could not understand why she was so poorly and weak.
“Some days she was full of life and energetic and other days she would be so frail and depressed. She hardly did anything around the home,” said her brother T Taka (not his real name).
It was not until November 2007 that a doctor at Parirenyatwa Hospital diagnosed that she was living with the virus that causes Aids. Her reaction to the diagnosis was so bad. She refused to eat and wished she had died when she was still a baby.
She also refused to take medication for many months.
“I have never had sex with anyone so why did I get this disease?
“Why me?” she would ask everytime we met.
The young woman would scream, throw herself to the ground and howl uncontrollably.
The limp body of the young woman was found at their Seke home one October afternoon in 2008.
T Joyous had taken her life after ingesting the entire supply of antiretroviral drugs she had just been given at the hospital.
Although there are no properly documented statistics relating to virgins living with HIV, UNAids reports that more than 17 000 children are infected with HIV every year in Zimbabwe.
The report, featured in a SafAids publication, quotes UNAids saying that only 4,4% of pregnant women have received nevirapine, a treatment that reduces HIV parent to child transmission.
The provision of nevirapine, the report said, rose from 4% in 2006 to 29% in 2007.
“Although this is an encouraging scale up, the provision of prevention of parent to child transmission services remain severely limited by lack of funding, and access to nevirapine remains low,” the report said.
It also states that around 12 000 children are living with HIV in Zimbabwe, most of whom became infected from their parents.
“If women attend antenatal clinics that enable them to start planning for life after birth of the baby. This has saved many babies from contracting HIV and at the same time lives of these mothers are also prolonged with the use of ARVs,” said a nurse at a local council clinic.
Zimbabwe has one of the lowest life expectancies in the world at just 37 years for men and 34 for women, mostly due to the Aids pandemic.
The report said, girls and young women make up nearly 80% of young people between the ages of 15-24 living with HIV and Aids.
“The response to HIV by the Zimbabwe government has been relatively good in comparison with their performance in other areas.
“Yet in the context of such a fragmented political and economic background, the fight against AIDS has not been able to make substantial progress.
“The collapse of the economy-which is perhaps the direct result of the governments disastrous land reform policy, as farming output- has deteriorated and the unethical nature of the campaign has led to international sanctions and withdrawal of aid,” the report said.
Treatment around HIV is donor funded and there is not so much that can be done with such low levels of funding, human resources and international support. Children’s right to health is a basic human right that is protected through child specific treaties and instruments.
Zimbabwe is a signatory to most of these treaties.