This week I’m back in Southern Africa. As we cross the threshold of another World AIDS Day, Dec. 1, I find myself visiting an AIDS patient in southern Africa with Dr. Anne-Marie Zajdlik from the Guelph charity, Bracelet of Hope, an organization that has single-handedly taken on HIV and AIDS.
It was a long trek to get to the patient. We drove through rivers, clinging to rock faces on mountaintops, up muddy goat paths for two hours one-way, flipping in and out of four-wheel drive. We kept going, a small flotilla of Toyota 4x4s, committed to delivering medical assistance. It is a different kind of fight against AIDS these days.
Most people may not realize that HIV/AIDS has, in a way, been controlled. It is transmitted the same way and it is devastating but HIV medications now allow those afflicted to live a normal life expectancy. Survivors on proper medication no longer spread the disease. Although it’s not a cure, it’s the next best thing—it prevents the spread. This means that babies born to women with the disease are not infected. This had been a huge problem, not only IS the child infected, but they are often orphaned by the disease and abandoned by their communities. Bracelet of Hope cares for many orphans, some are HIV positive. I visited many HIV positive children to talk to them about their young lives.
It was a profound and moving experience that I’m not sure I can communicate here, but I’ll try.
Meet 17-year-old Tabiso (not her real name). I’ve been following her for about five years. Diagnosed at three, she’d likely have died from AIDS by now. But a regular regimen of medication in her foster home has her happy and healthy today.
Halfway through our conversation I ask, “Does your best friend at school know you are HIV positive?”
“No,” says Tabiso.
“I am worried that she won’t be my friend if she knows… people will call me names or might stop playing with me… you can’t trust people not to say something,” she says.
I affirmed her wisdom. “Yes, you have to be careful,” I say.
I suppose we all have secrets. I eat French fries though I’m trying to lose weight. Others commit awful acts and don’t tell anyone. But here is a young girl who, through no fault of her own, must keep a secret, even from her best friend. We all tell each other secrets. Most we keep, some we don’t. This one you keep.
It’s been said that the reaction to HIV/AIDS is like a form of modern leprosy. People want nothing to do with the HIV positive person. We live in fear and frankly, ignorance.
We are now able to control the disease when drugs are available, but the stigma attached to it continues to do damage. Access to drugs and ongoing regular medical care are key in the fight against this disease.
Dr. Zajdlik’s solution is to fund mobile health teams that can go to where the sick are. These mobile clinics take health care, for AIDS and other health concerns, to the remotest areas where getting medical attention means a day’s walk or an overnight stay. Given the hardship, many stay home and just get sicker.
Mobile health clinics solve the problem for children like Tabiso or adults in mud-walled homes in the mountains, far from medical attention. It is a simple solution, starting with an idea to change the world, and it started in Guelph, with one doctor.