The stigma attached to HIV/AIDS must be addressed in order to stem the spread of the virus, says Winstone Zulu, one of Africa’s best known advocates for awareness and action on HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis (TB).
He was delivering a public lecture at the University of the West Indies (UWI), Mona campus on Thursday April 16.
“I fight HIV, but then I also fight the stigma, because HIV itself can attack your gut, it can attack your brain sometimes, it attacks your immune system, but the biggest attack comes from people outside, people who think that because you are HIV-positive, you must have been a sex-worker or a gay man, or you must have been loose with your life. And that, sometimes, is even more difficult to deal with than dealing with the virus itself,” he said.
The first person in his homeland of Zambia to publicly declare his HIV-positive status, Mr. Zulu has been living with the virus for the past 19 years.
He said that, in Zambia, stigma was seen at various levels, and the higher the social or economic status of the person, the more difficult for them to go public.
Principal of the University of the West Indies (UWI) Mona, Professor Gordon Shirley, (right) speaks with African HIV/AIDS advocate Winstone Zulu (left) and Chancellor of Ryerson University in Canada, Raymond Chang. Occasion was a public lecture organised by Ryerson University and UWI, held at the campus on April 16, where Mr. Zulu made a presentation.
“Stigma gets less and less if people see the benefits. Before there were anti-retrovirals, very few people were willing to get tested because they didn’t see the point but now more people have come out,” he revealed.
Mr. Zulu admitted that encouraging more persons to speak about their status in Zambia, was a method used to combat the spread of the virus.
“I think I am much better than if I didn’t come out in the public. I think I would struggle to live with this alone. I just found it so liberating to say it,” he said.
He noted that, over the years, the prevalence of the virus has been reducing in Zambia.
“When I came out, it was around 20 per cent but now the average around the country is 15 per cent. We are coming down but, in comparison to Jamaica, that is very high. Compared to any country, 15 per cent is just a horrible figure for people (with) an incurable disease,” he commented.
In terms of young people, in particular, there has been a decrease in the prevalence of the virus. He said that it is believed that more young people are using condoms and others are abstaining, and many others are starting to have sex much later in life.
“All those (factors) are helping to stop the spread of the disease,” he claimed.
Currently, approximately 1.5 per cent of Jamaica’s adult population live with HIV/AIDS. This represents about 22,000 people.
Mr. Zulu has faced many adversities throughout his life. He had polio and malaria when he was only three, and discovered that he was HIV-positive when he was 26. He also contracted tuberculosis (TB) but was cured of it in 1997.
Tuberculosis is the leading cause of death for HIV-positive persons. He also pointed out that about two billion people, worldwide, are effected with tuberculosis.
“You can keep people with HIV alive by treating TB,” he added.
He decided to go public when two brothers died from the virus. Four brothers eventually died from HIV-related TB.
“I just felt it didn’t make any sense not to talk about this. I just felt so many people were dying from this disease,” he confessed.
“In Zambia, when I came out, the prevalence of HIV was already around 20 per cent. In other words, one in every five people was infected, especially in the urban areas, and yet no one was admitting that they were living with the disease,” he noted.
He said that coming out publicly, was not just saying to people that he is HIV-positive, but his idea was to use the tragedy to reach out to people and, perhaps, warn them to be careful, as well as to give hope to those who were already living with HIV.
“The fact that I am public about it has changed my attitude towards the way I see the virus. I don’t see it as a very dangerous thing that I should be too much afraid of. It’s a dangerous thing for those who don’t have it yet, but I think if you already have it, there is no amount of fear that is going to change anything; you already have it, so you have to have the courage to live with it,” he admitted.
Mr. Zulu also noted that the advantages far outweigh disadvantages when persons speak out about their HIV status, as it allows them to “shed the fear” and acknowledge that, in some ways, hiding is an “admission of shame.”
He was in the island for a two-day visit, April 16-17.