- How a 15-year old teen survived HIV odds
When Puleng Motanteli discovered she was HIV positive in 2008, she felt like she could be buried alive. She was merely 15 years old at the time.
“What started like an ordinary day changed altogether at the time I received the results of my HIV test. It was a three-phased testing process and, correspondingly, the results showed I was infected with HIV in all the three stages. It was the severest shock of my life,” Puleng tells MNN Centre for Investigative Journalism in a recent interview.
But today, more than ten years living with HIV, Puleng is a fearless 26-year old HIV and AIDS activist. She is counted among champions of HIV and AIDS who have decided to stand up and speak freely about their positive statuses in order to promote the pandemic awareness.
Puleng is a living testimony that people living with HIV can lead a normal life as long as they stick to medication and treatment.
Although she did not start treatment immediately after she tested positive, “because I was both confused and on denial. I didn’t feel sick after all,” Puleng says she stuck to the medication ever since she started treatment late in 2009.
“It was only towards the end of 2009 when I fell sick and was hospitalised at Paballong Hospital. I had gone to the hospital to get injection for swine flu but ended up being hospitalised,” she says.
She adds she started taking medication after the hospital discovered she was HIV positive and her sister, who happened to a nurse, urged her to take treatment.
“A teenager as I was, I was responsible enough to at least adhere to the medication since I started taking it. I have never defaulted. Like many other people living with HIV out there, I still lead a normal life today,” she says with a smile.
Growing up in Botha-Bothe, Puleng, together with her other schoolmates, had decided to take a bold step and be responsible enough to know her HIV status from that early age.
They took advantage of the New Start team that had visited their school for health education on the pandemic, and provision of its counselling and testing services.
New Start is an HIV counselling and testing programme franchised by the Population Services International (PSI). It spans several countries, including Zimbabwe, Botswana, Mali, Namibia, Swaziland, Zambia and Lesotho.
After discovering she was HIV positive, Puleng faced greatest fear – informing her guardian sister and brother about it. The three siblings lost both their parents through death when Puleng was only five years old.
“I was confused and frustrated. I was bound to tell my sister and brother about it, but I didn’t know how. Honestly, I was innocent and believe I was a victim of circumstance,” she says.
When she had finally plugged up the courage to tell them, Puleng says her elders were divided in reaction.
“My sister was highly compassionate and supportive…, but my brother was not only judgmental, he would even accuse me of why I went to testing in the first place”.
Narrating her early life under treatment, she says it was one of pretence where she always had to appear normal in front of other school kids, especially friends.
“My friends did not know about my status in as much as I tested back in 2008. Every morning when I went to school, I had to put on a happy face so that no one could suspect that I am sick but stress would usually take its toll when I am alone, especially at home”.
She says while at school, she also kept herself busy with sports to avoid some alone time, adding also that, “I was afraid to tell my friends because I did not know how they would react considering the perception around HIV and AIDS at the time”.
She continued that, “the only challenge I had was when I had to go to the clinic to get medication and return to school, I always had to make sure that other students do not touch my school bag”.
According to Puleng, when she was 17 years old, and having been furnished with information on the virus, she began suspecting how she had come to contact with it.
“I had time to think about the death of my parents who passed away when I was five years old, that it must have been due to AIDS, although I am not sure, but the manner in which they died makes me strongly suspect that I got it from them. I didn’t know and no one told me about their status, not even them when they were still alive but I have reasons to suspect so,” she says.
She says it has been 10 years now since she has been under treatment and “I have been feeling well, getting sick like any other person from common cold and other common diseases”.
Asked what advice she can give to young Basotho who still perceive HIV as a monster and shy away from testing, Puleng says:
“I think what is important is to know what you want in life and putting vanity aside. If you know that your survival is with the ARVs (Anti-Retroviral treatment), that if I am faithful to the treatment, I will achieve other dreams that I have in my life, then no amount of discrimination will put you down. You will even be able to talk fearlessly about your status. There is hope and it is certainly not the end,” she adds.
Earlier this month, January 16, 2019, the government of Lesotho, PEPFAR, the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention and ICAP announced the final results of the Lesotho Population-based HIV Impact Assessment (LePHIA) survey.
The report shows “remarkable strides” that the country is making towards control of the epidemic.
It shows an impressive 81 percent of the population has tested and now aware of their HIV status, and adds the annual HIV incidence (new infections per year) today stands at 1.1 percent.
The Health Minister Nkaku Kabi has said the report provides a breadth and depth of data “that will greatly inform our approach to controlling Lesotho’s HIV epidemic”.
Also funded by PEPFAR, LePHIA was conducted from November 2016 to May 2017 and included 16,000 people aged from zero to 59 years across 10,000 randomly selected households.
It is the first national survey to provide comprehensive information on important HIV and AIDS indicators at national and regional levels and measure progress towards the globally recognised UNAIDS 90-90-90 targets set to be achieved by 2020.