Some of you might know that I spent some of my childhood in my mother’s native South Africa and Namibia as well. I was infected in one of those two countries. There were many other people who I knew, who also caught HIV around the same time. Unfortunately most of them have died, leaving children orphaned and families impoverished.
Life in rural African communities differs a lot from our comfortable Western (or in my case, Middle Eastern) living. Poverty, malnutrition and often the absence of available and affordable medical care maked AIDS the same ruthless killer that so terrified the USA and Europe two decades ago. Local beliefs and customs don’t really help with the situation: condoms are a rarity, and used even more rarely. Christian, especially Catholic missionaries don’t help either. The no condoms part of their message is heard, but somehow the do not have extra- or pre-marital sex part gets lost. Apparently there is a belief that sex with a virgin cures AIDS, which is a false rumour. So the virus spreads.
The minimal care that patients receive guarantees that they will develop AIDS sooner rather than later–all this in an era when effective medicine is available for those of us, who were privileged to be born elsewhere. In Africa, in my Africa, people suffer, because they can’t afford what comes naturally to me.
In Israel HIV infection rates are on the rise. Currently there are 5,658 of us in the country, living with HIV or AIDS. The majority is males. The rate of the spread of infection is increasing, and with fewer and fewer immigrants from countries with high infection rates we can no longer blame “import” for the increase. I see an increasing carelessness in my generation, who are willing to take the risks and assume that they won’t be infected.
In this lies the biggest danger: undiagnosed people can spread the disease easily. They don’t know, often they don’t care, and pass HIV on. They don’t know and they don’t want to know. They don’t want to be THE guy with HIV. They don’t want to be outcasts.
I do think the media are contributing to the stigmatization of people with HIV and to the misconceptions that are very much alive today. Back in the late 80’s and early 90’s TV movies and films such as “Philadelphia” and “And the Band Played On”, showing some aspects of life with AIDS. There is Rent, there were characters suffering and dying from AIDS in episodes of many TV shows. Then things got quiet, and the idea people still carry around is based on those old, and often inaccurate portrayals of life with HIV. It’s about time there would be a “real” HIV+ character on one of the popular shows or in a good movie.
When asked about what my greatest challenge with HIV is, my answer is unvariably is disclosure. Who to tell and what has been a challenge since the day of my diagnosis. I honestly believe that my parents didn’t handle this too well. I grew up terrified of anyone finding out, and when I ended up in a situation when I had to publicly tell a lot of people about my HIV status, I realized that some of those people should have known already… and should have been educated about it.
So here I am, one of the 5,658 in this country. My name is Yonah. I am HIV+.