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Community groups help alleviate HIV stigma among men

BILLY NTAOTE

Lesotho’s male population largely remains reluctant to visit health-centres or even take HIV tests, which present challenges in the country’s fight against HIV and AIDS.

In some instances, men prefer to have their spouses take the HIV test and then assume their status would be the same as their partners’.

But this norm is fast-changing as various strategies are deployed to ensure such stereotype against the virus is broken and the male population in Lesotho is not left behind in the fight against the HIV/AIDS pandemic.

Such strategies have, since their introduction in 2012, seen more men agree to undergo HIV-testing and counselling although the stigma and reluctance remains.

For those found to be HIV-positive during the deployment of the various strategies to increase the number of men who know their HIV-status, participating in Community ART Groups (CAGs), has become the silver bullet that ensures adherence to Anti-Retroviral Treatment (ART).

These CAGs, as they are referred to by their members, are groups of HIV-positive residents on antiretroviral drugs (ARVs), who live in the same community.

Members of these CAGs take turns to visit nearby health-centres to collect ARVs and distribute the medication among fellow group-members.

It is one of these CAGs that 58-year-old Tsukulu Khotle—a father to two children from Ha Matsie in Mohalinyane in Mohale’s Hoek district—says changed his life and gave him hope and motivation to live longer and take his ARVs.

Khotle has been a member of a CAG, together with his friend Motsarapane Phantši (49), for the past five years. 

He now says the CAG normalised his life that had become so difficult and unbearable due to frequent visits to health-centres.

The 58-year-old came to know his HIV-status more than fifteen years ago but only started taking ARVs when his health was deteriorating and his CD4 count went down. However, he says it was never easy to take the medication without support hence his gratitude to CAGs.

According to Khotle, what he hated the most was the monthly routine of collecting his medication from the health-centre, which he says exposed his status even without having to disclose it verbally.

“Sometimes, you just want to be identified as yourself and not that Khotle who is HIV-positive,” he said.

When his health started to deteriorate, Khotle says he suspected he had contracted Tuberculosis (TB), but  numerous tests run by the Mohalinyane Clinic confirmed  he had HIV.

He says at the time, it was taking approximately five days for the test results to come back from the laboratory.

But unlike other people living with HIV, Khotle says he never felt stigmatised and received much support from his family.

Yet despite the support, Khotle still felt the need not to be easily identified as being HIV-positive, which was why the CAGs came to be a blessing in disguise.

Khotle says he has now become one of the men in Ha Matsie, who counsel and motivate other HIV-positive men to adhere to their medication through their CAGs.

“This has helped me focus on other daily chores without having to go to the clinic every month. I used to come for monthly refills of my medication and at times, those trips would clash with my work-schedule,” Khotle said.

Phantši, meanwhile, shares Khotle’s sentiments about the benefits of belonging to CAGs, adding he now takes more than five months before he has to visit the clinic for his medication.

The CAGs, Phantši further said, have saved him from the  stigma that used to follow him when he used to frequent the clinic for his medicine. He also said the support he received from his family helped him cope with his status.

“The CAGs have helped us from the stigma associated with HIV and we also do not like frequenting the clinic,” Phantši said.

He also said the CAGs were a comfort zone where they speak freely about their HIV and AIDS status without any fears.

“We even counsel and support each other under the CAGs. We don’t only have people who have known their status for a long time but are also open for newly-infected people who have lost hope. We give them the support they need and show them they can live with HIV and lead a quality lifestyle,” said Phantši, before Khotle butted in to say CAGs were very central towards ensuring people adhere to their HIV/AIDS medication.

Khotle further said people living with HIV should not be deterred by those who discriminate against them.

He also urged the country’s health authorities to continue supplying HIV-positive people with Corn-soya food supplement to ensure they adhere to their medication.

“These food parcels help us continue taking our medication daily without challenges as many of us no longer have jobs to sustain ourselves and our families,” said Khotle.

Phantši added the food parcels were very helpful in times of drought and poor harvest.

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