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Of youths living on the HIV/Aids frontline

Local News

“I SHOULD have not been in and out of hospital had my parents accepted my status, but they were in denial,” says Melody Chihota (24) who came to know of her HIV status at the age of 12.

Unlike many children born in the late 90s when the HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) pandemic was at its peak, Chihota (pictured) was lucky to be tested, but her parents refused to accept that their daughter was HIV positive.

After several years of sickness and getting in and out of hospital, coupled with her dropping out of school, her parents finally agreed that she undergoes another HIV test in 2011. She was then put on Antiretroviral Therapy (ART).

Nevertheless, Chihota’s woes continued as her parents would discourage her from taking her medication, which turned out to be a case of ignorance on their part.

“My parents did not accept it easily and it took serious persuasion and counselling from relatives for them to come to terms with my predicament,” Chihota told a group of journalists who were at a National Aids Council (Nac) tour of Mashonaland East province, Seke district.

“They would tell me treatment is not necessary because it was not a guarantee that I would be cured of the virus.”

She still harbours unanswered questions as to why she was the only child in her family who tested HIV positive.

Bitterness often haunted her, forcing her to default treatment as she thought this would speed up her death.

But all this came to an end when she became a member of the community adolescent treatment supporters (CATS), a grouping supported by Africaid which runs a programme dubbed: Zvandiri, loosely translated to: This is what I am.

It was established in Zimbabwe in 2004 as a support adolescents living with HIV.

Africaid provides differentiated care for children, adolescents and young people aged 6–24 years living with HIV.

Under its programme, mainly HIV-positive people aged 18-24 years work between health facilities and homes of youth living with HIV to increase uptake of testing, linkage, adherence, retention in care, and services related to sexual, reproductive, and mental health.

They are supervised by Ministry of Health and Child Care officials and work closely with social and community health workers.

“Before getting help from our support group I used to have negative energy over my condition,” Chihota painfully recalls.

“Now I only look forward and will not waste my time looking back. I have realised adherence is key. When taking treatment rightfully, one will never have problems with their health.”

She has embraced the art of living positively and is always cheerful.

“I take my condition seriously and I don't want it to be visible that I am HIV positive. Knowing your status is key and the best way of living a healthy life,” she said.

Like Chihota, Originate Muko’s case is similar.

Muko got to know of her status when she was in her teens, but had a challenging childhood, being sick and also missing out on school.

She was tested in 2014 and was immediately put on treatment.

“At first it was hard to accept, but my aunt kept giving me pressure and would take time to explain my condition to me,” Muko said.

“She kept telling me that being HIV positive is not the end of the world and that it was up to me to choose to live or to perish; I chose life.”

Muko said she regrets that her parents failed to take action like other parents who joined the Prevention of Mother to Child Transmission (PMTCT) programme to prevent HIV transmission to unborn children.

According to the National Centre for Biotechnology Information, in 2001 only 4% of women and children in need of PMTCT were receiving the service.

PMTCT transmission of HIV has been an integrated component of the Zimbabwe HIV/Aids policy since 1999, when urban pilot programmes were initiated.

“My father was refusing to get us tested even though our mother had died of HIV,” Muko said. “He too succumbed to it during our childhood. I would default treatment, sometimes out of laziness and mostly due to stress.”

She got a new lease of life when she joined the CATS programme.

“I would push myself to do things the team would emulate. I have been on first line treatment for the past eight years and in a stable relationship though I am afraid of disclosing my status,” she said.

Another victim of non-disclosure by parents, 21-year-old Annie Muchenje, from Marondera said her mother hid the truth from her.

Muchenje was told evil spirits were causing her illness.

As a result, she failed to adhere to treatment and her mother would not encourage her.

“I was born HIV positive and was always sick, but my mother used to say I was bewitched,” Muchenje said.

“In 2003 I was tested and they told me I was positive. It took years for me to understand why I was taking the medication daily. I was told of my status when I joined a support group when I was in form two.”

Muchenje said she was in pain to know that her parents knew their status, but never cared to inform her. Counselling helped her understand her condition and she has started living positively.

She got married in 2020 and has an HIV negative baby. Her husband who is also HIV negative has been her pillar of strength.

The three cases are a drop in the ocean as many children are being subjected to similar circumstances, but with improved efforts to end HIV in children, the situation is improving, according to Nac.

Statistics availed by the Health and Child Care ministry in 2016 state that 56,2% children living with HIV knew their statuses.

Recent statistics by the same ministry say 72 088 children aged 19 and below are living with HIV, 73% of which are currently on treatment while there are 5 000 new infections in children annually.

Speaking to NewsDay, Nac chief executive officer Bernard Madzima said Zimbabwe is one of 12 countries committed to the Global Alliance to ending HIV in children by 2030.

He said this was a result of efforts to reduce HIV in children where the country is lagging behind compared to adults.

“We have developed a roadmap or action plans to accelerate various aspects of eliminating HIV transmission in children,” Madzima said.

“This includes the testing of pregnant women and putting them on treatment if they are positive and early infant diagnosis of neonates and also making sure that they are on effective treatment.

“We want to reach out to every corner of the country to improve service delivery on all aspects of Elimination of Mother to Child Transmission.”

The World Health Organisation states that half (52%) of children living with HIV/Aids globally are on life-saving treatment compared to 76% adults who are already receiving antiretroviral treatment.

The country has seen an improvement in HIV-related issues, leading to a positive response towards achieving the UNAids 95-95-95 goals, which are ambitious targets calling for 95% of all people living with HIV to know their HIV status, 95% of all people with diagnosed HIV infection to receive sustained antiretroviral therapy and 95% of all people receiving antiretroviral therapy to have viral suppression by 2025.

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