Imagine trying to keep a life-or-death secret when it touches almost everyone you know. The statistics tell you that many people with whom you live, work or socialize share the same secret. Indeed, everyone you know has a parent, child, friend, colleague or neighbour, who share this secret. Yet you can never be sure who to confide in.
If people see you going to the clinic every month or popping a pill every day, they might start calling you by a nasty three letter word: “H.I.V.” You see, while the virus can take a decade or more to kill you, the public scorn can happen in an instant. So you hide. Perhaps drop out of treatment altogether, or refuse to even get tested. You sacrifice your physical health to avoid committing social suicide.
“HIV kills whoever wants to die”, says Thembisa Bobo, a young woman from Khayelitsha township in South Africa, and her straightforward observation is as true today – when quality anti-retroviral treatment is freely available – as it was 15 years ago, when a lack of treatment was leading to wholesale death among the township’s population.
The fact is that nobody should be dying of AIDS today, nobody should even be infecting others: as long as you are on dutiful, daily and lifelong treatment, you have close to zero risk of passing on the virus to your partner or unborn child.
So why is it that AIDS is still killing 140,000 South Africans every year, and infecting three times this number - the equivalent of the entire population of Khayelitsha?
Young people, especially women, are among its first victims: every four minutes another young South African between the age of 15 and 29 is infected.
All experts agree: to stand a chance of curbing the progression of an epidemic that has already killed twice as many people as World War I, the time to accelerate the fight against HIV is now.
But this cannot be achieved through mathematical models and theoretical plans elaborated in cozy air conditioned offices. It needs affected communities who are willing to break the tragic burden of secrets and stigma, and who encourage each other to follow a simple, but oh-so-difficult to apply, mantra: “please condomize – get tested – take your ARVs”.
So for this year’s World Aids Day on 1 December, Doctors Without Borders / Médecins Sans Frontières – South Africa has joined forces with people living with HIV in Khayelitsha, to broadcast far and wide through the township, especially towards young people, that there is life beyond HIV.
Choose treatment, choose life – beat complacency.