A 40-year-old counsellor with the Network of Persons with HIV/AIDS in Nigeria, Angela Okorie says she was diagnosed with Human Immunodeficiency Virus in 2004 at a time when many myths and misinformation were surrounding the Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome disease.
She said the experience unsettled her parents who feared that she may not survive because of the prevailing situation.
Speaking exclusively with PUNCH HealthWise, Okorie explained that she was able to survive the harrowing experience because her parents were supportive and fought fiercely for her survival.
“For me, I think it was down to the fact that I have a supportive family that does not stigmatise me. As an open person, I can say it anywhere. I am infected and there is nothing I can do about it. It is what it is,” she said.
How ignorance contributed to my HIV journey
Narrating her HIV journey, she described it as a tough experience.
“I was down with AIDS and had all manner of symptoms ranging from loss of weight, herpes, oral thrush, lymph node and rashes. I was always stooling and had boils under my armpit. At a point, even the hair on my head started falling off. I had a whole lot of symptoms and I was really down. In retrospect, I looked like a skeleton. Every time I looked at my situation, I loathed myself.
“I got infected through my sexual partner, though I didn’t know his HIV status. Also, I wasn’t knowledgeable about HIV back then. But I suspected he was infected because he sometimes brought up HIV-related discussion. I was so naive and ignorant. When I fell sick, I kept treating malaria and typhoid. Sometimes, it would appear I was okay and fell sick again after a while.
“Consequently, I was moving from hospital to hospital until a doctor in the last hospital I went to conduct an HIV test on me without my consent. I think he just did after seeing all the symptoms springing all over my body. He later handed me the result to take to a treatment site. But I did not open the medical note. Even if I did, I won’t have known what was written in it. Neither would I have taken the ‘0+’ sign to mean I have AIDS or HIV,” she said.
The NEPWHAN counsellor disclosed that she only got to understand the content of the note when she took it to her uncle’s health facility.
“Being a medical doctor, he opened it, read the content and nodded. He then commenced my treatment until I got better before he sat me down and gave me my first ever counselling session. He was the one who told me that I have AIDS and lectured me on what I need to do to remain healthy. That was how I know about my HIV status.
A new lease of life
“I was introduced to ARVs at the Military Hospital in Yaba where I started my medication and it momentarily revived me. The officials were courteous and attended to me very well. Now I am healthy and have none of those symptoms anymore. I commenced the use of ARV medication in 2005 after I got to know my status in 2004. I was barely 24 years old lady. But 16 years down the line, I have clocked 40 and my viral load has reached ‘undetectable’ level, meaning I am doing very well,” she said.
While disclosing that the trauma affected her education adversely in 2005, Okorie noted that her parents were consistently buying antiretrovirals for her.
According to her, it was so bad that her father, especially, had to channel most of the fund meant for his education into procuring ARVS to ensure she got better.
“My father figured that the essence of education would be useless if they fail to keep me alive. Their faith and confidence were seriously shaken. They were not really sure if I would survive.
“I also lost my relationship. I was so sure the guy infected me with AIDS because he was the only one I had. Being an open person, I sat him down and told him I never wanted to see him again,” she said.
The 40-year-old lady also flayed the level of stigmatisation in the society, saying it has largely remained a big challenge in HIV management and AIDS control.
According to her, many people including the elite still resent seeing People Living with HIV/AIDS in the face of an enabling anti-stigma law.
“Unfortunately, not many people know about this law including some PLWHA. Only a few people are aware of its existence. This is also the reason many people won’t want to open up on their status. Today, you will see husband and wife staying together. One of them is positive and he or she won’t be willing to disclose it. It still boils down to the fear of stigma.
“The outcome is usually unpredictable. It’s unlike when you hear people come out to say ‘Oh, I have a headache or fever.’ That’s what the atmosphere should be when stigma is done away with. It is a health issue people should be comfortable to discuss. Nigerians should stop seeing PLWHA as the result of being wayward,” she said.
Attaining an undetectable HIV status
Okorie revealed that she took the offer of a counsellor when she observed that telling her story helps and makes a lot of persons with fresh infection feel comfortable.
Speaking on what it takes for persons who tested positive for HIV to reach an undetectable status, she explained that a patient can only get to undetectable status when he/she strictly adhere to medication.
“It defers from person to person. If he adheres strictly to medication, have good nutrition and live a healthy life, the virus becomes undetectable over time. But when he fails to adhere, it prolongs it.
“For instance, if a patient placed on ARV after testing positive is in the habit of skipping medication, smoking, taking alcohol with a mixture of concoctions and engaging in unprotected sexual intercourse, it will take him a long time to get to an undetectable stage.
“On the other hand, an infected patient that is placed on medication and adhere could get to the undetectable level in three months,” she said.
Reacting to the idea of PLWHA reaching an HIV undetectable status, Assistant Director, NACA, Dr. Yewande Olaifa said that it was not a walk in the park.
“First, the patient has to be on antiretrovirals, which he must use regularly and consistently. How long it will take to achieve the undetectable status also depends on the combination of ARVs used.
Older combinations can take about six months. But we have first choice combinations that can crush the virus within four weeks. That’s why we are leaning on that one.
“Also, for a mother to prevent transmission to a child, there has to be some level of protection. The client needs to be on ARV regularly and consistently to suppress the viral load. That also applies to the sexual partner. She has to regularly and consistently be on ARV as well as use a condom. This is because there is still a slight risk, though not as high as when you are not on ARVs,” she said.
She further stressed that the only time clients are advised not to use a condom is when they are trying out for a baby.
On how long it takes to diagnose a person with a history of unprotected sexual activities with an infected partner or someone pricked with an infected needle, the NACA director disclosed that with the range of new kits in the custody of the agency, it may take three months.
“What we are looking for in this case is antibodies being developed against the virus. That’s one of the reasons we say that if one has unprotected sex and has done the test, he will be required to come back in three months. That’s when we know whether you have the virus or not,” she said.
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