EVERY DAY IN South Africa, 1000 people contract HIV. This shocking statistic is hardly surprising, however, when approximately 80% of HIV positive people aren’t aware of their status*.
People who don’t know whether they have the virus can’t make empowered decisions about their sexual activity. Even if they are aware of the disease (and research shows there is a level of understanding about the disease – even in rural areas) they could still adopt the “it won’t happen to me” approach, continuing to practise unsafe sex.
To stop the spread of infection, it is vital that people get tested. At the moment only 2% of South Africans get tested annually*. Increasing this percentage is an enormous challenge. As the saying goes, “Ignorance is bliss”: for many people it is easier to cling on to a self-constructed reality than face facts – especially when those facts can result in humiliation and rejection from your family and community.
HIV/Aids is frightening – not because it can eventually result in death, but because of the horrendous, cloying stigma attached to the disease. This stigma has created the perception that HIV/Aids is an assault on dignity, culture and sexual power. Government’s recalcitrant stance of the past few years has exacerbated this, cloaking the disease with a sense of furtive shame. And so what happens? People – justifiably – are too scared to find out their status. The HIV positive people who do get tested are in many cases forced to hide their status, living in constant fear of retribution and bigotry.
Every South African needs to do what they can to de-stigmatise the disease, to look at it and treat it for what it is: a manageable condition that casts no aspersions on the carrier’s morality, proclivities or behaviour.
I yearn for a day when we will have an open, tolerant and accepting society.
Next week: Counting the cost (and how to help!)