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HIV stigma turns deadly for new mum

Written by Suprise Nemalale

More than three decades into South Africa’s HIV epidemic, treatment is widely available and HIV is no longer a death sentence – but stigma might be.

A 2013 University of Cape Town study found that people living with HIV who started ARVs early and had been on treatment for at least two years can expect to live about as long as their HIV-negative peers.

Eunice Tshankera, 23, had given birth to a beautiful baby boy just days earlier but the new bundle of joy in her arms was not enough to shake a horrible feeling she had through her pregnancy.

Eunice was diagnosed with HIV two months into her pregnancy. According to local health care workers, she seemed to accept her diagnosis and had been adhering to antiretroviral (ARV) treatment.

“She was a very happy person in our eyes,” remembers Guyuni Clinic nurse Ndidzulafhi Muleba. “We took it that she had accepted (her status) and was willing to go on with her life.”

But Eunice was not coping with her HIV status and, just four days after giving birth, hung herself. In a suicide note discovered next to Eunice’s pillow by her family, Eunice said she had lost hope after her diagnosis.

“She said it was of no use raising a child whom you will eventually leave orphaned when you die of HIV,” said her mother, Masindi. “She said that she didn’t have any reason to live after she discovered that she was HIV positive.”

“I did not understand because before she gave birth, she seemed fine and to have accepted her condition,” Masindi added.

Muleba agreed.

“We never saw it coming,” Muleba told OurHealth.

A life lost in vain

Living with HIV for two years, Mukondi Ndou had tried to guide Eunice through her new diagnosis.[quote float=”right”]“I wish she had accepted her condition… if that was so, she would be here with us”

“We used to hang out together,” Ndou remembered. “I have her all the advice I could regarding my experiences of living with HIV.”

“I used to giver her some encouragement to accept her condition like I did,” Ndou told OurHealth. “I felt so sad when I hear that she had hung herself because of her condition.”

But Eunice did not have to die. Diagnosed with HIV early through the local prevention of mother-to-child HIV transmission programme (PMTCT), Eunice’s life expectancy would likely have been about that of her HIV negative friends, according to a 2013 study published in the journal, PLOS.

As part of the study, University of Cape Town researchers reviewed the records of about 38,000 people living with HIV starting ARVs for the first time. Researchers found that there was largely no difference in life expectancies between those with or without HIV provided HIV patients started treatment at CD4 counts of 200 or more and had been on ARVs for more than two years.

CD4 counts are a measure of the immune system’s strength. Currently, people living with HIV must have CD4 counts of 350 or below in order to start ARVs.

HIV is not a death sentence

“To every one out there who is getting tested and those thinking of getting tested for HIV, we advise them never to see HIV as a killer,” Muleba told OurHealth. “(HIV) is only a virus… people should understand that being diagnosed with HIV does not mean that you are going to die soon.”

“There are medications like ARVs to keep you alive,” she added. “Take your ARVs and you will be fine.”

Eunice’s mother, Masindi, now worries what she will tell her growing grandson

“I feel sad when I think of what to tell my grandson when he grows up to ask me of his mother and how she died,” she said. “I wish she had accepted her condition like other people who are living their lives with HIV.”

“If that was so, she would be here with us,” said Masindi gazing at her grandson. “He will always remind me of my only daughter.”

About the author

Suprise Nemalale

Suprise Nemalale is an OurHealth Citizen Journalist reporting from Limpopo's Vhembe Health District.