Feb 2012

Health: Going strong 17 years later

Going strong 17 years later

Nomusa Njoko had been an asthma sufferer since the age of 12, an affliction she never really outgrew. At 22, the disease appeared to rear its ugly head again and Nomusa went for an asthma check-up. At the time, it sounded a bit strange when the doctor suggested that she had an HIV test as she was not responding as well to her prescribed medication as in the past.

"The doctor said that I fitted the profile of an HIV positive person," Nomusa explained. True to his suspicion, she tested HIV positive, something that never existed in her world.

"I was devastated and frustrated. I didn't know how I ended up with the virus. There was a lot of confusion at the time because the doctor told me that I had only three months to live." 

AIDS activist

Today, 39-year-old Nomusa is one of South Africa's well-known AIDS activists and is one of the country's most sought after gospel artists.

Nomusa has been living with HIV for the last 17 years and while many may think that the virus is a death sentence, she urges those who are positive to live life to the fullest and look after their health.

"I realised that I had contracted the virus from a partner I had at the time. I then told my former partner. We were no longer together at the time; it was a short-lived relationship. I told him and based on his reaction, it seemed as if he already knew." 

At 22, Nomusa was like any other young adult, trying to figure out who she really was, enjoying life with her friends and family. "Suddenly I had to grow up and deal with issues that other 22-year-olds didn't have to think about."

While initially in shock, her family supported her throughout her illness and they still do. In 1995, when she publicly disclosed her status, some members of her community were hostile towards her.

"Stigma is rife... to eliminate stigma, it is going to take our leaders to pioneer disclosure. It needs to start from the top and it will be easier for ordinary people to disclose.

Spread the message

The World Health Organisation estimates that the number of people living with HIV in South Africa for 2010 stands at 5,6 million. Of these, 518 000 were children under 15 years, while almost 3 million were adult females over the age of 15. 

The National Strategic Plan on HIV and Aids 2012 - 2016 was launched in December last year. One of the key decisions included in the plan is the development of a single integrated strategy for HIV, sexually transmitted infections and TB. This is primarily due to the high co-infection rate between HIV and TB, as well as HIV and STIs. South Africa faces one of the worst dual epidemics of HIV and TB in the world at 73 per cent.

Nomusa commends government's response to the virus, but believes more should be done to educate people and raise awarenss.

"I have suffered from TB three times and the failure to diagnose early is the problem. It is a major killer among HIV positive persons, even those on treatment," she explains.

ARVs do not address opportunistic infections. It is critical that when one tests for HIV, they test for TB as well. That will ultimately prevent deaths.

Being a musician has helped Nomusa to spread the message. It is through her music and her job as Social Marketing and Mobilisation Deputy Manager at the KwaZulu-Natal Department of Health that she speaks about the effects of the virus.

"Every situation is unique... It can never be the same. It lives in your body in different ways. You need to know your body and the virus better than anyone else. Don't let the virus direct or order the steps of your life. Whatever dreams you have, live them or create new dreams," she urges.


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