13 Aug 2015 11:50am
By Anna Tervahartiala

WINDHOEK, 13 August (NAMPA) - Brenda Sabuta is quick to laugh and speaks with a smile, even though the matters at hand are nothing to laugh about. Sabuta has known that she is HIV positive since 2005. When asked if she is afraid of the virus, she does not think twice before answering; the answer is an unwavering NO. Sabuta is full of life and that has kept her going all this time.
“If I am to stand next to someone and hold their hand, no one can say who is positive and who is not,” Sabuta says.
When speaking on the importance of knowing your HIV status, the 52-year-old woman knows what she is talking about because it took her years to learn that she herself was carrying the virus.
“I lost my husband in 2002 but I was not suspecting anything. He never told me that he had the virus,” Sabuta begins.
In 2005, Sabuta accompanied a friend to the hospital and while waiting, a doctor suggested she get herself tested. The result was positive and even though the test result came as a shock, Sabuta has not gone a day without hope.
“You must know your status when you are still well. If you find the virus when you are already in the hospital ward, it is too late,” Sabuta notes.
HIV is the abbreviation of Human Immunodeficiency Virus. It affects the immune system of a human being, weakening it and destroying cells that fight diseases and infections naturally. The virus is transmitted through blood and body fluids, meaning that the most common mode of transmission is through unprotected sex or using infected needles in injections. HIV can also be transmitted from mother to child during pregnancy, delivery or breastfeeding.
Unlike most other viruses, the human body is not able to fight HIV and is thus incurable.
The most common HIV treatment is the antiretroviral therapy (ART), which includes a combination of medicines taken daily in order to keep the level of HIV viruses low in the body.
Since the discovery of her positive status, Sabuta has been on the ART treatment and for the past ten years, she has taken her medication twice every day. She will continue to take her treatment for the rest of her life. Punctuality is a necessity in order to keep the virus under control.
Skipping medication, not abiding to the schedule of treatment or allowing reinfection would mean that the virus is given a chance to strengthen and multiply. If this is to continue, the virus may develop into AIDS.
AIDS stands for Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome and refers to the stage of the HIV infection were the immune system of the body is substantially weakened and is no longer able to fight infections.
Research has shown that although a person is infected with HIV, the virus does not necessarily develop into AIDS. A person on regular treatment can come very close to the life expectancy of a HIV negative person.
“There is nothing complicated about living with HIV,” Sabuta says about her everyday life.
“It is only when one leaves the medication that the problems starts.”
When placing Sabuta’s story in the context of her home region, the Zambezi region, Sabuta is no exception. According to the latest National HIV Sentinel Survey, 36 per cent of the population of the region carried the virus in 2014.
When contrasted with the national prevalence rate of that year, which stood at 16.9, Zambezi ranks as the region with the highest infection rate in the whole of Namibia.
The high prevalence rate can be seen in the day-to-day work of the non-governmental organisation Positive Vibes, which has been running self-help groups for HIV positive people in the region since 2013.
“We have never had difficulties in recruiting people for our workshops,” says Oscar Mwinga, Positive Vibes Zambezi Region regional coordinator. Even though the work done by Positive Vibes is relatively new in the region, the virus here is nothing new.
“HIV has always been there and by the end of the 90’s, AIDS started taking lives every day. It was only in 2003 that access to the antiretroviral treatment was introduced and the virus became more controllable,” Mwinga recalls, emphasising the impact the availability of treatment has made on the lives of thousands.
In spite of the fact that work done to promote HIV awareness has been relentless for years, the reasons behind the high prevalence rate in the Zambezi Region still remain unchanged.
“We always ask the participants of the workshop, why they think their region ranks as the highest when it comes to the number of HIV infections. Repeatedly we hear the participants mention poverty,” Mwinga explains.
Even though poor living conditions do not cause the virus, the lack of options, knowledge and equality of life enhance the spread of infections. When talking of the prevalence rate, Mwinga is quick to note that the infection rate is far higher amongst women.
According to the Namibia Demographic and Health Survey of 2013, among respondents of the age 15-49 from the Zambezi Region, 30.9 per cent of women and 15.9 per cent of men were infected. According to the same survey 51.7 per cent of widowed women nationwide were infected with AIDS.
“The women are the first to know their status,” Mwinga says. Since the beginning of their work in the region, the organisation has struggled to get men to participate in workshops and awareness building.
“This is also a reason that keeps the infection rate high, men are losing information.”
When talking of ways poverty affects the HIV prevalence rate of the region, Mwinga also mentions prostitution. As the Zambezi Strip is the natural port to central Africa and a hub for trucks passing through to Angola, Zambia and Zimbabwe, unemployed women easily opt to work in the sex industry in order to feed themselves and their families. Cases in which a sex worker is offered a higher salary for sex without a condom are not unheard of.
When asked whether Mwinga feels that the virus is under control in the Zambezi Region, He pauses for a few seconds, before saying unconvincingly: “Yes, it is under control.”
“Before treatment, we were losing people. They were dying. Now they are on treatment,” Mwinga continues.
When looking towards the future, Mwinga says uncertainty is inevitable, as the work of Positive Vibes in the region is coming to an end or merging with other programmes. This change is one of the many side effects of the Global Fund Crisis, which began as Namibia was classified an upper middle income country by the World Bank in 2009. The classification resulted in the withdrawal of foreign donors.
“When looking at the past statistics, we did drop the prevalence rate with one per cent. Even though it is only one per cent, it did go down,”Mwinga states referring to the prevalence rate of 2012 which stood at 37.7 per cent.
“We are very busy,” Mwinga concludes.
It is such hope of a better tomorrow, as far as HIV infection is concerned, that has kept people like Sabuta alive. Upon knowing her status, Sabuta has not kept quiet. Since the discovery of the virus, Sabuta has worked as a counsellor for others with the same status, challenging the stigma that in most cases accompanies people who disclose living with the virus.
“There are campaigns that say zero discrimination, but discrimination is there,” Sabuta says.
According to her, it is the stigma that enhances the spread of the virus and also stops people with the virus from going on treatment.
“You are not taking the medication for yourself only,” Sabuta reminds.
“You are taking it to protect others, as well as protect your family, from the sorrow of losing you.”
When looking at the future, Sabuta hopes to see a further decrease in the infection rate. According to her, this can only be done if people get tested and know their status. Fighting the epidemic demands the responsibility of both HIV positive and negative people.
“When I and my husband met in 1984, there was no talk of HIV. During our marriage, he had wives or girlfriends aside of me. It is because of this that I am also infected,” Sabuta says.
When asked whether she is aware of the status of the other women who were involved with her husband, Sabuta cannot say much for certainty.
“All I know is that two of them have already passed away.”
Even though Sabuta would have plenty of reasons for bitterness, she remains on the path of hope. She does not hold grudges, nor does she blame the people who choose to hide their status or keep their distance from her.
“One cannot only pray and wait for things to happen; one has to help oneself. That is why I am not losing hope. I will continue and I am not afraid.”