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‘Test while still strong’, warns HIV-positive mother

‘MAJIRATA LATELA

Matheriso Nike (41) of Ha Mojakhomo in Mohale’s Hoek district has urged fellow Basotho to test for HIV before they become too sick and find it too difficult to embark on AntiRetroViral (ARV) drugs.

Nike told the MNN Center for Investigative Journalism (Centre) that once a person suspects that he or she is infected with HIV, it would be advisable to go for testing without delay as a stronger body would withstand the treatment much better than a very sick one.

Nike found out she was HIV-positive in 2006 but did not show any external symptoms that she had the virus, hence she did not face any complications when she was subsequently put on ARVs.

“I never experienced any problem; I did not get sick from the medication when I started taking it in 2006. I was healthy at that time and no one could tell that I was HIV-positive except for the two lines that appeared on my test kit,” she says.

Nike said she started taking ARVs after her now-ill husband came back from the mines in South Africa where he was employed, and tested HIV-positive.

“My husband was admitted to hospital and while under observation, I was called to also get tested,” she said.

Nike says she tested positive for the virus and was subsequently put on antiretroviral treatment. Since she started taking the ARVs, Nike says she has never experienced any illness which has required special attention. She attributes this to embarking on her treatment while still ‘healthy’.

“I still catch flu just like any other person,” she says.

However, after her husband passed away in 2010 due to diabetes, Nike says she found herself in a dilemma.

“After my husband passed away, there was no one to support our family as he was the breadwinner. I was left with no choice but to look for a job,” she explained.

Luckily, Nike found a job in South Africa, ‘Ceres’ but before leaving Lesotho, she needed a larger supply of ARVs as she would be away for a long time. But the nurses at the clinic she went to could not give her the quantity she needed.

“I explained to the nurses that I may not be around to collect my medication, so I asked for more medication. But I was not given enough medication for the four months that I was going to be away.

“When I was in South Africa, I continued with my medication as usual. I was working as a housekeeper and when my medicine was finished, I was left with no choice but to continue working as if nothing had happened because I had not even been given a referral letter to acquire my medication in South Africa.”

After running out of the medication, Nike spent the following month without taking the ARVs but came back to Lesotho later that month. “When I got home, my CD4 count was tested and I went back to taking my medication as there was no change in the CD4 count,” she says.

Doctors use CD4 counts to evaluate the health of the immune system and monitor human immunodeficiency virus progression in the body.

Nike says the nurses told her the reason her CD4 count did not go down when she missed her medication was because she started treatment early.

However, Nike says she is curious to know why the colour of her skin has changed since she started taking the medication. “My hands and feet have now turned to a blackish colour. I explained this to the nurses at the clinic but they said it was nothing to worry about,” she said.

The other challenge Nike said she experienced and led her into changing ARVs was that in 2011, she was diagnosed with ‘piles’ which only got better when she was put on a different treatment.

“After my medication was changed, I felt better and my life became normal again,” she says.

However, Nike says another challenge she is facing due to the ARVs is they make her very hungry and during tough times, she is forced to take the medicine on an empty stomach.

“When I take the medication without eating anything, I feel like my intestines are tied in a knot; it is very painful.”

Nike also says she finds it very hard to look after her three grandchildren as it is her responsibility to take make sure they have food to eat every single day.

“I usually ask my neighbours to give us some food on bad days while I wait to get piece jobs,” Nike said.

“When they don’t have anything to give me, I usually spare what I have for the kids and sleep on an empty stomach myself.

“And because of the effects I have had for taking the medication on an empty stomach, I am forced to abandon my medication on such days but luckily, I do not get any side-effects the following day when I resume taking them.”

According to Nike, her two daughters are also on ARV medication and they are also working in South Africa. She says  due to the difficulty of working in another country and not having referral letters, she collects the ARVs for her two daughters and then sends them to them through friends and family members who work in South Africa.

She has been doing this for over a year now, she said, adding this has helped keep her daughters alive and in their jobs.

But Nike has some advice for her compatriots who might find themselves facing the same challenges confronting her.

“I would like to urge people to get tested for HIV even when they are not sick. I found out that I was living with HIV but I was looking very healthy at the time. But again I could not deny being positive because my husband was HIV-positive and I was at the risk of getting infected,” she says.

Research conducted by Bio Meds Public Health has shown that migrants in South Africa, especially housekeepers who are on ARV treatment, are afraid to reveal their HIV-status for fear of losing their jobs should their employers find out.

The study further revealed that another challenge was some migrants may not be able to get their medication in South Africa even when they have been given a referral letter in their home country because some of them would be in South Africa illegally.

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