Drawing on her experiences, an HIV-positive young woman is educating people about HIV. Her reassuring and positive message is that HIV can be treated and also prevented.
Mpho Mbheki (31) believes that South Africa can have an HIV-free generation if HIV-negative people avoid infection and if people living with HIV consistently take their medication and don’t infect others.
When she was 19, Mbheki took an HIV test. She took another two tests and got the same result each time.
“I tested positive three times in that year. I was shocked, scared and in denial. I just could not believe it was true. I had a lot of emotions. I thought my life was over because I was so young and had never thought I could be HIV-positive,” she remembered.
“I think what scared me the most was that I grew up in Butterworth, in the Eastern Cape, where people used to think that everyone who is HIV-positive got infected because they were sleeping around. It took me almost two years to accept my status. It was only after going for another test in 2009 that I got to accept my status,” she said.
Mbheki said she worried about using her antiretroviral medication (ARV).
“I feared that my body would be deformed, or that I will either get fat or lose a lot of weight. I remember collecting my medication for three consecutive months without drinking it because I was scared. I went for a number of counselling sessions at a local clinic and started drinking my medication,” said Mbheki.
Eventually, she told her family.
“I told my parents first and then I told my sisters. They were all shocked and asked me a lot of questions, but they were very supportive and soon accepted that I am living with it. However, they were not comfortable with the fact that I wanted to go public about my status. They feared that I would suffer from the stigmatisation surrounding living with the disease, but I told them nothing is going to stop me,” she said.
Mbheki says she didn’t want young girls to go through the same things that she had experienced. She wanted to encourage them to learn as much as they could about HIV and how to protect
themselves. She also wanted to help those who were HIV-positive to accept it.
A local non-profit organisation (NPO) called We Care approached her after her first few public motivational talks about living with HIV.
This gave her a platform to reach bigger audiences. She held public engagement sessions in churches and schools in her area. This encouraged many young people to test for HIV or disclose their status.
“I could not believe the feedback I was getting because I thought people would be harsh and judgemental, but they were not, although they were shocked to learn about my story,” she said.
Mbheki said she thought she would struggle to be in a romantic relationship but she needn’t have worried. Of all the people with whom she had relationships only one person was HIV-positive, the person who infected her.
Today she has a three-year-old HIV-negative child.
“When I was ready to have a child, I spoke to my partner who knows about my status and is HIV-negative and we went on to have a child,” she said.
Mbheki is the adherence counsellor at Nozuko Local Clinic in Butterworth. Her job is to assist people who find it difficult to commit to taking their HIV medication .
Curbing new infections
Besides advocating safe sex and encouraging HIV-positive people to get treatment, the National Department of Health supplies pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) to select clinics to help prevent high-risk HIV-negative people from contracting the disease.
During the 9th South African Aids Conference held earlier this year, Deputy President David Mabuza said according to research, by the University of Cape Town approximately 7.4 million South Africans are HIV positive. Of these, about 4.9 million are on treatment. Government aims to increase this number by another two million people by December 2020.
For more information contact the national AIDS helpline at 0800 012 322.