When Ndlela Howard Dhlamini disclosed his HIV-positive status more than a decade ago, ignorance about HIV led his local tavern to refuse to reuse the glass he drank from. This kind of HIV stigma may be a memory for Dhlamini but not for everyone living with the virus.
Dhlamini was diagnosed with HIV on his 18th birthday in 1999 after testing at a friend’s suggestion. He said he almost didn’t make it to the clinic.
“I almost forgot because I was drunk and with a girl,” said Dhlamini who lives in Bohlokong township outside Bethlehem in the Free State. “I used to drink a lot and have a lot of girlfriends back home and at school in Durban.”
Like many, Dhlamini said he was shocked at the diagnosis and initially reacted in anger.
“At that time. I had 10 girlfriends who loved me so much because I was so popular,” said Dhlamini, who added that he had been treated for multiple sexually transmitted infections (STIs) during school. “I was so angry, I just wanted to infect them all.”
Both multiple concurrent partnerships and STIs can increase a person’s HIV risk. In the case of STIs, those such as herpes and syphilis, can often lead to sores or blisters. These kinds of breaks in the skin may allow HIV to more easily into the body
Convinced he was going to die, Dhlamini began planning his funeral programme that night.
“I then went into my bedroom took an A4 page and started drafting my funeral programme,” Dhlamini remembered.
“I then fell asleep and my mom came to check up on me. She found the note and she was so angry,” he said. “She said I still had my life to live, I was not going to die.”
Fear, stigma remain huge obstacle to HIV testing
Dhlamini describes the next three years as the hardest in his life.
“There was a public phone at the corner near my home,” he said. “I went there and made a phone call. After that, people protested that the public phone should be removed because (they thought) I would infect them.”
“At the tavern, they had a glass marked with a black pen to show that I was the only would who could drink from it,” said Dhlamini who said the community’s stigma was fuelled by a lack of awareness about HIV was spread.[quote float= right]At the tavern, they had a glass marked with a black pen to show that I was the only would who could drink from it”
HIV can only be passed from person to person via exposure to infected body fluids like blood, semen, vaginal secretions and breast milk. It is usually transmitted via unprotected sex but can also be transmitted by sharing needles or from a mother to her child during pregnancy, birth or breastfeeding.
You cannot catch HIV from casual contact like shaking hands or sharing food or drink with people living with HIV.
Today, UNAIDS estimates about 6.8 million South Africans are living with HIV, but recent research shows levels of accurate knowledge about how the virus is transmitted are declining nationally. This decline has been accompanied by an increase in HIV risk behaviours, according to the latest Human Science Research Council’s latest household HIV survey.
It may also be driving stigma. Released earlier this year, South Africa’s first HIV stigma index measured levels of stigma and discrimination due to HIV status among more than 10,000 people living with the disease. The survey found high levels of self blame and shame among people living with the virus.
About 10 percent of those surveyed reporting being excluded from a family or social gathering in the last year and about half of these people felt their HIV status was the cause. About one in 10 of those surveyed also reported considering suicide.
Globally, fear of social rejection and discrimination are still among the most common reasons people give for avoiding HIV testing and care, according to UNAIDS. In its latest report, the UN body has argued that decreasing stigma is crucial to tackling HIV. It also highlighted successful ways countries are tackling stigma including Ghana’s introduction of an sms and online system allowing people living with HIV to report stigma.
In South Africa, The South African National AIDS Council has partnered with Legal AID South Africa and public interest law organisation Section27 to provide legal assistance to people who believe they have been discriminated against due to their HIV status.
For Dhlamini, things changed when he disclosed to his church.
“People and my family started to support me,” said Dhlamini who now volunteers with the local community-based organisation Dihlabeng Development Initiative to educate people about HIV prevention and teenage pregnancy. “My family has always been there for me through it all.”