Today, the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) is treatable unlike three decades ago when receiving an HIV diagnosis was comparable to being handed a death sentence.
This is because advances in HIV research have led to treatments that can make the virus undetectable and nontransmissible in less than six months, though many are still ignorant of this.
New infections are on rampage among Nigerians, especially among women, as thousands are still dying of HIV-related causes despite accessible and effective treatment due to stigma.
The recently released Nigeria AIDS Indicator and Impact Survey (NAIIS) showed that women aged between 15 and 49 years are more than twice more likely to be living with HIV than men. Consequently, women are now bearing the burden of being prospective sources of HIV infection with its associated stigma and discrimination.
Research has shown that stigma shame leads to poor health outcomes in HIV patients, and unfortunately, stigma shame is a huge problem across many Nigerian communities.
A 22-year-old girl, Adeola Ajetunmobi shared her harrowing experience of stigma and discrimination after the diagnosis of her HIV status.
She told DAILY INDEPENDENT, “From 2010, I used to have skin rashes. Prior to the rashes, I used to have cough and boil. Following the body irritation, I was always scratching my skin. As I scratched, I experienced untold pains with very big boils developing all over my body, from my head to my toe, my breast, even the vagina, everywhere. I was really in a bad state that one would think a screw driver has been used to pierce my body causing the injuries, bleeding and pores.”
Adeola referring back in time, said, “There was a time the Lagos state government under the administration of the former Governor of Lagos state, Babatunde Fashola organised a free HIV test. So I went to run HIV test, the result showed negative. Later I when I got to know about HIV, I assumed that I must have been in the ‘window period’ when the test was conducted.
“The window period is the time between potential exposure to HIV infection and the point when the test will give an accurate result. During the window period a person can be infected with HIV and be very infectious, but still test HIV negative. The window period for a fourth generation antigen/antibody test is four weeks. At this time 95 per cent of infections will be detected. There is a three month window period after exposure, for the confirmatory result to detect more than 99.9 percent of infections.
“So from 2011, I started getting slim, I became skinny and smelly with flies perching everywhere around me because when I scratched my skin, it released blood and pores, such that sitting with anyone made them repulsive. Then I visited different Churches and anywhere I go, they will say it is an evil arrow.
Her sad narrative about being ostracised by her family can make any reader teary, “Though I am the first born in the family, my father’s relatives drove my mother and I out of the family house 13 years ago for no just cause. So, I was squatting with my friend then when the infection struck.
“In January 2013, I was not unable to cope again as my health further deteriorated and then I was almost half-dead. I was often mocked and called ‘Oku’ in Yoruba, which is literally translated to ‘living corpse’ by many acquaintances. So I had to visit Randle Hospital, Surulere in Lagos. There in Randle Hospital I fainted. Before I could recover, I found myself on the bed and placed on drip. Immediately, I thought of who to call when I fully recovered. I called an aunty, but when she said she was busy, I decided to call my friend, who is currently in the USA. She came all the way from Aguda and assisted in paying the whole bill.
“So while she was around, the doctor had told her that I was HIV positive, but I was not informed yet. I was still on the sick bed at Randle Hospital, when I received a text message from a friend of mine whom I was squatting with announcing my HIV positive status through rumour. As far as Ojuelegba, Surulere was concerned; everyone got to know my HIV status, except me as the doctor told others without my consent.”
From Randle Hospital, Adeola was transferred to the Mainland hospital, accompanied by her junior sister who is a nurse and her mother who came much later.
She said; “After 24 hours, I was referred to the Mainland General Hospital, Yaba. My condition was so critical such that the doctors were worried. This was before I was started on antiretroviral drugs. I did series of tests and my CD4 count was zero. The doctors prescribed supplements which boosted my CD4 to 1 after few days. My CD4 count later rose to 57. I was then placed on antiretroviral (ARV) drugs. What I see in it is adherence, when you keep to the rules and regulation, you will be okay.
“I spent six months in the hospital and after I was discharged, there was nowhere for me to go. I could not go back to my friend’s house, and my mother’s house was not even an option because she squats till date.
“I resolved to go back to my grandfather’s house, because that was my only option. I asked my immediate younger sister if we could manage any room in my father’s house, but she said, ‘never.’ She said that my ailment was detestable. My family was indifferent to the stigma the society made me feel. The stigma was truly horrible. Since my sister did not allow me in and fought me seriously, to the extent that she used a tin of Bournvita and stick to drum as well as chant that I am HIV positive person and I would not live in the family house.”
Adeola resolved to sleep on the corridor. Her stay on the corridor which lasted for two years led to further crisis. She discloses her rape story to DAILY INDEPENDENT, “There was a day that rain fell heavily. I had to go and meet a neighbour and tenant who happened to be a bachelor; and begged if I could be allowed to stay in his house. Of course like some men with devious lifestyle, he was fully aware of the rumour about my HIV status, but cared less, he raped me and this led to pregnancy.
That was weeks later after I was discharged when I went back to the hospital and announced I was pregnant, everyone was shocked.
The doctors couldn’t believe that I could even contemplate pregnancy in my condition, but I told them what happened, they sympathised with me. During pregnancy I had practically nothing, no money. The delivery was difficult, but I returned to the house with my baby girl. She had only four clothes and I had two clothes. I benefited from Prevention of Mother-to-child transmission of HIV, PMTCT and also did exclusive breastfeeding for her. Luckily, my baby is HIV negative.
Till today I have not seen the man who impregnated me again, even though he knew that I was pregnant.
My mother stood by me and requested to be educated about what to do and not do. I ensured my mother got tested too and thankfully she is negative. My daughter is five years and is being taken care of by my mother.”
“So if not for the stigma and discrimination, I wouldn’t be a single parent by this time at this my adolescent age. I was 17 at that time. Now I am 22. I want to do something with my life. I’m from Ogun State. My primary ambition is to go back to school because I dropped out in SS2. At times when I think about my lack of education I cry because I believe I am wasting away. I wish I can get a sponsor to do that for me. So if I see opportunity to go back to school, I will be really grateful. So my secondary ambition is to set up a business because of my child. Marriage is not a priority for me. It is not that men do not approach me, but I have no plan for marriage now, I don’t even want any love affair for now, perhaps later,” she lamented.
The experience of Adeola represents the ordeal of hundreds of people living with HIV (PLWH) in Nigeria, especially girls and women. Stigma and discrimination are among the major challenges facing PLWA. Put in Adeola’s words; “HIV does not kill, stigma does; self-stigma is even worse.”