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HIV-positive women speak out
Saturday 7 May 2005
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SOUTH AFRICA: HIV-positive women speak out

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

©  IRIN/Kristin Palitza

Anne Leon: "HIV/AIDS is not a death sentence"

KWAZULU-NATAL, 17 August (PLUSNEWS) - As part of the Women's Month celebrations in South Africa, a "Day of Hope" was held at Pinetown in KwaZulu-Natal province to tell the stories of three HIV-positive women who are living proof that "there is a life after HIV".

Women are among the hardest-hit by the epidemic - the South African Medical Research Council estimates that the HIV prevalence rate amongst women in KwaZulu-Natal ranges between 37 percent and 47 percent.

Anne Leon, the first woman to speak out during the event organised by the Ikhaya Lobomi (Zulu for "House of Life") AIDS hospice, has been living with the disease for more than 10 years.

"HIV/AIDS is not a death sentence. There are so many wonderful things we can still do with our lives if we approach the disease with the right attitude," she told the audience.

Leon found out she was HIV-positive two weeks before she was to marry "the man of my dreams", when the couple took a compulsory HIV-test for life insurance. She was afraid he would call off the wedding if she told him she was positive - he had tested HIV-negative - but she was wrong. "Love is stronger than the virus," she said.

After searching for the man who had infected her, she found him terminally ill in a public hospice, abandoned by family and friends. She also discovered he had wilfully infected her and four other women.

According to Leon, the man was one of the only two people with whom she had had unprotected sex. They had met as children, when he was ten years old and was her brother's best friend, so she had fully trusted him.

Since then she has spent her time working as an HIV/AIDS educator, showing people that "there is life after HIV - I am living proof of it."

She became one of the first white women in the country to publicly reveal her status after asking herself: "How can anyone be strong if one lives a life of lies and in hiding?" Few white South Africans know their HIV status or are prepared to disclose it.

Leon only started taking antiretrovirals (ARV) four months ago and attributed the slow progress of her disease to a healthy lifestyle. Before starting treatment, she had strengthened her immune system by eating "lots of fish, chicken, vegetables and fruit but little sugar, drinking lots of water and very little alcohol".

Earlier this year her CD4 count (immune cell count) dropped to 155 - ARV treatment is recommended for patients with a CD4 count of 200 or less - and her health deteriorated. She decided to enrol in a treatment plan and her CD4 count has since risen to 786.

HIV/AIDS counsellor Sindiwe Cele (not her real name) works at King Edward Hospital in the coastal city of Durban and also gives public talks on her life with the virus.

She has disclosed her status to her family, her employer and colleagues, and is willing to talk openly about her disease, but not in her home community, a township south of Durban, for fear of stigma and discrimination.

She was raped in a squatter camp in 1996. After an examination and pregnancy test at a public hospital she was advised to return three months later for an HIV-test, but never went back. She fell sick in February 1997 and was diagnosed positive.

Cele disclosed her status to her mother and sister, who both refused to talk about the disease or give Cele any support. "It was and is very hard to cope with the situation. Because I don't get mental support at home, I don't see myself capable of disclosing my status in the community I live in," she told PlusNews.

Her health slowly deteriorated until, in January 2001, her CD4 count reached 220, while her viral load had shot up to more than 77,000. She realised that her only chance of survival was to be accepted in an ARV clinical trial programme - ARVs were not freely available in South Africa at the time.

Cele was chosen to participate and since then has been on triple therapy, a combination of three different anti-AIDS drugs. Her CD4 count has fallen to 603 and her viral load is less than 50, which was regarded as "undetectable", she said.

Although she experiences a number of side effects, such as persistent diarrhoea and rash, nausea, muscle pain, weight loss, poor memory, depression and insomnia, this mother of one accepts them, as the drugs prolong her life. "Before I was on ARV treatment I had lost hope. Now I am very happy," she said.

Nomusa Magwaza spoke about her status for the first time. She had just returned home from the Ikhaya Lobomi AIDS hospice in the Valley of 1000 Hills, where her mother had taken her with a CD4 count of less than ten and a viral load in the millions, and they both thought she would die. "We didn't believe that I could get better," recalled Magwaza.

She believes she developed AIDS quickly because she "did not have much money" and could not afford healthy nutrition on a regular basis to keep her immune system strong, or medication such as antibiotics to treat opportunistic diseases.

At the hospice she received a healthy diet, treatment for opportunistic diseases and a mixture of homeopathic remedies to boost her immune system. This simple immune-strengthening therapy helped to reduce Magwaza's viral load to about 7,200, and her CD4 count rose to 310.

She is able to walk again with the help of a crutch. "Today I am able to prepare my own breakfast. You can live with HIV/AIDS if you want to live," she said proudly.


Recent SOUTH AFRICA Reports
Project empowers rural communities to shape own HIV/AIDS programmes,  3/May/05
Clinic tackles urgent need for AIDS/TB treatment,  2/May/05
Voices of mothers on preventing HIV transmission ,  11/Apr/05
Initiative to alleviate effect of AIDS on education,  7/Apr/05
Shared breastfeeding and poor medical hygiene fuels HIV/AIDS,  6/Apr/05
Le portail d'informations générales de la Côte d’Ivoire
The Global Fund to fight AIDS, Tuberculosis & Malaria
Mothers and HIV/AIDS

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